Easing the pain: Meet the wearables tackling pain relief

Got a headache? There's a wearable for that...
Easing the pain with wearable tech
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Back constantly playing up? Prone to frequent headaches or stiff joints? If you're nodding in agreement, then you're far from alone. Just over one third of the UK population live with chronic pain and it's a similarly big issue Stateside and in other parts of the world.

While conventional medications may dampen down the symptoms for many people, sufferers are always on the lookout for ways to calm their aches that don't involve nasty side effects or a risk of dependence.

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If you're living with long-term pain, there's a good chance you've tried everything from deep breathing to acupuncture to get some relief, but the latest pain-fighting wearables may have escaped your radar. Intended as a supplement to pain management rather than a painkiller replacement, these devices use miniaturised electrostimulation to dull the aches and twinges.

The idea is that by wearing a painkilling device, you can cut your dosage and reduce your reliance on medication. So what's out there? We take a closer look at the current crop of wearables designed for pain relief.

TENS based pain relief wearables

Quell is a strap that you wear around your leg that uses miniaturised TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) technology to reduce the perception of pain, delivering tiny electrical impulses that help drown out pain signals to the brain. The device works with disposable electrode pads that cost $29 a pack and need replacing every couple of weeks.

TENS technology has been around for years, but has only recently become available in mini wearable form, a distinct advantage since the TENS method only provides pain relief when the TENS machine or wearable is being used. You're not likely to want to cart around a bulky conventional TENS machine 24/7.

Is there any proper evidence this technology works? According to the NHS, there isn't enough quality scientific proof right now to state for sure that TENS is a reliable and effective method of pain relief. That said, anecdotal evidence is strong, and several respectable medical trials suggest that TENS can offer mild to moderate relief for some people, but not everyone.

Quell is reportedly five times more powerful than conventional over-the-counter TENS devices, another reason to give it a try, and the gizmo has a dedicated app to help you manage your pain more effectively. Plus, it tweaks itself to the wearer's therapy requirements for targeted pain relief. "Quell's patented OptiTherapy automatically adjusts therapy dose for optimal relief," says Quell marketing manager Emily Adekore. The device, which is priced at $249 is only available in the US and Canada at present, with a UK launch likely later this year.

Quell isn't the only TENS wearable out there. AcuKnee also uses TENS technology, while a crowdfunded TENS-based patch called CUR is in the pipeline, currently awaiting FDA approval. Migraine sufferers may want to consider Cefaly, a TENS headband that stimulates the trigeminal nerve, which in theory should provide pain relief and minimise attacks.

PEMF based pain relief wearables

Although the latest wearable TENS devices may be effective enough for some people, there are other wearables available that adopt another type of electrostimulation technology that may just have the edge. PEMF (pulsed electromagnetic field therapy) uses directed pulsed magnetic fields rather than electrical currents, supposedly targeting pain at its root cause.

Can PEMF really help calm chronic pain? "Although the evidence for this isn't unanimous, some of the best and most recent PEMF trials are unambiguously positive," says Paul Ingraham, a science writer who specialises in pain management. He believes PEMF may make for a more effective method of pain control than TENS. Nonetheless, PEMF doesn't work for everyone, and some people find TENS devices more effective.

Oska Wellness has shrunk PEMF technology into a compact wearable called Oska Pulse, which retails at $399. As well as employing a different, perhaps more effective, pain relief method, company CEO and chairman Greg Houlgate believes his product is more user-friendly than the current crop of TENS wearables.

"Any TENS device that you will find on the market today requires the user to purchase disposable electrode pads that must be worn directly on the skin," he says. "The sensation from a TENS unit is not very comfortable and the 'shock' from the unit may prevent many people from even trying the technology. When a person uses an Oska Pulse there is no shock and it doesn't require electrodes, gels or pads."

Like Oska Pulse, Actipatch, uses PEMF technology to target pain. The difference is, it does this at a lower and possibly less effective frequency, hence the lower price tag.

Whatever wearable electrostimulation device you opt for, it's worth bearing in mind that the technology may not work for you, so it's advisable to choose products that offer extended money back guarantees (as both Quell and Oska Pulse do). The rise of pain-killing wearables is a good thing, but they're still a long way from being the holy grail of pain relief.

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