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Those who suffer from severe pain in, for example, the back or legs can hopefully get access to a new kind of pain relief soon. Researchers from Cambridge University in the UK have developed an implant that can relieve pain even in cases where painkillers do not help.
The implant can be described as a very small air mattress. It is injected with a syringe into the epidural space at the spine. Once in place, the implant can be inflated with air or water until enough of the spine is covered. Electrodes in the implant can then send out weak electrical pulses that disrupt the pain signals to the brain.
Early tests indicate that the implant is effective even when painkillers provide little or no relief. The researchers also hope that the method can be used in treatments for Parkinson's. They will now proceed with clinical tests and the hope is that the inflatable implant can be accessible as a treatment in a few years.
"This technology has the potential to transform clinical treatment, significantly improve pain management for so many people, and reach patients who cannot be treated with existing devices," says Rachel Atfield, one of the researchers behind the implant, in a press release.
The implant is only 60 micrometers thick, much like a hair. This means that it can be rolled up into a small cylinder and placed in a syringe. The implant contains lots of microscopic channels that can be filled with air or water.
"Thin-film electronics aren’t new, but incorporating fluid chambers is what makes our device unique – this allows it to be inflated into a paddle-type shape once it is inside the patient," says Christopher Proctor, another of the researchers behind the implant, in a press release.