The CES, more commonly known as the consumer electronics show, is the place where new electronic devices are displayed every January in Las Vegas. The latest show has just finished, and of course there are a bevy of new toys available. One item that was presented was the Quell; a similar non-electric version is making the rounds as a commercial on TV. The Quell device straps on the calf and delivers a small current to the area to stimulate the branches of the sciatic nerve in the leg, while the TV strap version just puts pressure on the nerves. The claim for both of these wearables is that they can take care of back pain radiating into the leg, and in the case of the Quell, it can cure any pain in the legs.
The reality is that these machines will work on about 30 percent of the people who use them. This is an absolute guarantee. It is the same number of people that a placebo (an inert sugar pill) will work for positively. Otherwise, the science behind these devices is limited. Stimulating a nerve in the periphery can change the brain’s ability to perceive signals coming from the same part of the body. However, the brain is very good at recognizing the vast variety of signals it does receive from all over the body, and this is what allows the body to function as well as it does in a variety of situations. The likelihood that the Quell can superiorly trick the nervous system is small.
We already have peripheral stimulating systems, known as TENs units, that have been around for years, and with improved electronics, they have become smaller, easier to use, and have sophisticated stimulation patterns. Electrical stimulation has been around since the late 1800’s for use in medicine. Physical therapists have used a variety of electrical stimulation devices to help control pain and improve function since the end of World War I. The unfortunate truth is that all of these devices only work in a small percentage of people, at the most 50 percent. When they do work, they can be very helpful controlling a variety of painful conditions. These units can usually be tried in physical therapy for about a month, and if they work, then they can be purchased. These devices at least have sound science behind them, and can be purchased at a reasonable price if they work for you.
These latest devices hyped at the CES or on TV are probably best left alone. These are examples of magical cures for conditions, and we know there is no magical solution. If pain is an ongoing condition in your life, find a good medical practitioner who can diagnose the problem and lead you to a solution that will work. The problem did not likely suddenly appear, and good solutions are unlikely to make the problem magically disappear.
Thomas Cohn, MD
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