African-american man touching back sitting at desk feeling sudde

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CAMBRIDGE, England — Back problems plague millions of people around the world and for many it seems like surgery feels inevitable. And even then, there’s no guarantee the problem will dissipate. But there may be a new, less invasive road to relief. Scientists have created an inflatable spinal cord implant that could cure severe back pain without patients having to go under the knife, according to a new study.

The device, no thicker than a human hair, can be rolled up into a tiny cylinder and inserted into the patient’s body with a needle. Once in place, the implant is inflated with water or air, expanding like a miniature air mattress to cover a large section of the patient’s spinal cord. It can then be connected to a pulse generator which sends small electrical currents through the spinal cord, disrupting pain signals to cure back pain.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge hope the device could be used to treat millions of people around the world who suffer from joint and back pain.

Other types of spinal cord “stimulation devices” can be used to treat back pain. But the most effective ones are bulky and require invasive surgery, while those which can be implanted through keyhole surgery are less effective.

Inflatable spinal cord implant
The inflatable spinal cord implant. (University of Cambridge)

“Spinal cord stimulation is a treatment of last resort, for those whose pain has become so severe that it prevents them from carrying out everyday activities,” says study co-author Dr. Damiano Barone, of Cambridge’s Department of Clinical Neurosciences, in a university release. “However, the two main types of SCS devices both have flaws, which may be one reason their use is limited, even though millions struggle with chronic pain every day.”

For most people, pain is temporary and treatable, but for some it becomes a debilitating part of everyday life. Back pain in particular, costs the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars annually, if not more. Yet many people still choose not to see a doctor.

A combination of manufacturing techniques were used to make the new device.

“In order to end up with something that can be implanted with a needle, we needed to make the device as thin as possible,” says co-first author Ben Woodington, a doctoral student in the university’s Department of Engineering.

Flexible electronics from the semiconductor industry were combined with microfluidic channels used in drug delivery and shape-changing materials from the soft robotics sector. The finished product is just 60 microns thick, meaning it can be rolled up and inserted into a needle and can be inflated thanks to the microfluidic channels.

“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,” notes senior author Dr. Christopher Proctor, also of the Department of Engineering.

Early versions of the device were nearly invisible to x-rays, which are needed to help surgeons confirm they’re properly placed prior to inflation. “We added some bismuth particles to make it visible without increasing the thickness too much,” explains Woodington. “Designing a device is one thing, but putting it into surgical use is quite another.”

Back pain cure implants
The device is so thin – about the width of a human hair – that it can be rolled up into a tiny cylinder, inserted into a needle, and implanted into the epidural space of the spinal column, the same area where injections are administered to control pain during childbirth. (University of Cambridge)

The most effective SCS treatment on the market is a paddle shaped like device which requires the patient to undergo surgery under general anesthetic. Other smaller devices, which can also be implanted through a needle, only cover a small surface area of the spinal cord and are therefore less effective.

“Our goal was to make something that’s the best of both worlds – a device that’s clinically effective but that doesn’t require complex and risky surgery,” says Proctor. “This could help bring this life-changing treatment option to many more people.”

The potential back pain cure has been tested in vitro in a laboratory and on human cadaver models. Now, the researchers are working with manufacturing partners to bring it to market, which they estimate will take two to three years.

“The way we make the device means that we can also incorporate additional components – we could add more electrodes or make it bigger in order to cover larger areas of the spine with increased accuracy,” adds Barone. “This adaptability could make our SCS device a potential treatment for paralysis following spinal cord injury or stroke or movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. An effective device that doesn’t require invasive surgery could bring relief to so many people.”

The findings are published in the journal Science Advances.

SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.

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