Sound & Electrical Stimulation may Ease Chronic Pain.

April 11, 2023

Summary: The new study maps and characterizes the neuromodulation effects in the somatosensory cortex in response to the body’s sound and/or electrical stimulation. The study’s results suggest that bimodal stimulation can excite or modulate firing across a targeted population of somatosensory cortex neurons, providing a non-invasive method for chronic pain treatment.

Chronic pain is a complex and multi-faceted condition that is often difficult to treat. One of the main challenges in treating chronic pain is that it is often caused by a combination of factors, including physical injury, nerve damage, and emotional and psychological stress.  These conditions are often difficult to diagnose and treat, making chronic pain challenging to manage. Moreover, traditional pain management methods, such as medication and physical therapy, may not be effective for everyone and can have adverse effects. 

Since chronic pain often does not respond to various treatments, doctors often need to prescribe opioids. However, prolonged opioid use is not an option; thus, researchers are looking for safer ways to manage chronic pain. They are especially interested in methods not using substances to treat chronic pain, like electrical body simulation, such as TENS or Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation.

TENS devices are readily available for pain management at most pharmacies. However, they provide only limited pain relief in most cases, which is far from satisfactory. Thus, researchers are now looking for ways to improve TENS’ effectiveness in pain management. And it appears that researchers have identified a way to boost the painkilling effect of TENS in a new study. They found that using sound therapy along with TENS may enhance its painkilling action.

In the new study, researchers investigated the potential of multisensory integration in the cortex by activating multiple sensory and motor pathways to treat brain disorders such as tinnitus or essential tremors. Tinnitus, a type of chronic auditory pain, is a condition in which a person experiences ringing, whistling, or buzzing in their ears. Previous studies have shown that combined sound and body stimulation can modulate the auditory pathway and significantly improve tinnitus symptoms.

The research aimed to map and understand how sound and/or electrical stimulation affects the somatosensory cortex (SC) in ketamine-anesthetized guinea pigs. The SC’s layout was first identified by applying electrical stimulation to various body areas with subcutaneous needle electrodes or broadband sound. The study then examined how different regions of the SC can be activated or suppressed through combined stimulation.The study results showed that the topography in the SC of guinea pigs in response to electrical stimulation of the body aligns consistently with that shown in previous rodent studies. 

Additionally, broadband noise primarily activated SC regions that respond to lower body stimulation. Only a small number of SC locations were excited by sound alone, but all SC recording sites could be affected by combining sound with other stimulation. Specific parts of the SC could also be targeted by using broadband noise in conjunction with electric stimulation of a particular body region.

The study concludes that these findings show that bimodal stimulation (sound and electrical) can excite or modulate firing across a widespread yet targeted population of SC neurons, providing a non-invasive method for altering or disrupting abnormal firing patterns within certain parts of the SC for chronic pain treatment. 

This study is an initial step towards understanding the potential of multisensory integration in the cortex by activating multiple sensory and motor pathways to treat brain disorders such as tinnitus or essential tremors and chronic pain. Now there is a need to test this method in a broader population group, in individuals living with chronic pain due to different health issues.

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By Gurpreet Singh Padda, MD, MBA, MHP