Last month’s blog focused on an injectable pain medicine that reduced or eliminated the need for narcotic medications after surgery. In keeping with Bottom Line’s desire to keep readers apprised of the latest medical innovations, this month I will focus on another modality that deals not only with pain relief, but with anxiety, depression, insomnia and even opiate withdrawal. Sound like a too-tall order? Read on.

A company called Innovative Health Solutions has designed and gotten FDA approval for a drug-free device called the BRIDGE to relieve post-surgical pain. Depending on the patient’s response, it can reduce or eliminate the need for pain meds of any kind, but the main goal is to avoid opiates.

Worn for up to 5 days on and behind the ear, it generates electrical impulses from the outer ear to the central nervous system—to the part of the brain that partially controls stress, emotion, anxiety, depression, cravings and pain perception. This system, the limbic system, is run by a small brain structure called the amygdala (Latin for almond). The signals sent to this area (by use of peripheral nerve field stimulation, or PNFS) have beneficial effects outside the surgical arena, as proven in some human and animal studies, as well as in research or scientific modelling. These include:

• Less perception of pain after surgery.
• Less anxiety in anxious people.
• Decreased depression.
• Decreased insomnia.
Decreased opioid craving in people undergoing narcotic withdrawal.

The device takes about 15 minutes to apply. The generator, about the size of a standard hearing aid, is housed behind the ear with tape and connected by 4 small wires to electrodes implanted with tiny spikes in the skin of the ear (inserted on the ear’s front, back, earlobe and anterior to the tragus—the small cartilage flap at the front of the ear’s opening). Once in place, the unit generates electrical signals to the brain to achieve the desired positive effects. Side effects include mild discomfort, the potential for infection and bleeding. After five days, the unit is removed and discarded in a sharps container.

Not all insurers cover the purchase and use of the BRIDGE, and certainly not all medical centers and doctors’ offices are carrying it. The system is really in its infancy, and more studies need to be done to further prove its utility and benefits. But at a time when opioids are killing thousands of Americans each year and prescriptions for anxiety-, depression- and insomnia-related medications continue to skyrocket, any non-pharmacologic tool that has minimal side effects is worth a look.

Auricular acupuncture has been around for centuries, and this “shocking” twist on an old medical discipline just might be the charge many patients are seeking.

For more with Dr. Sherer, click here for his podcast and video interviews, or purchase his memoir, The House of Black and White: My Life with and Search for Louise Johnson Morris.