Can Stimulating the Brain Treat Chronic Pain?

A new study shows it’s possible to treat chronic pain with electrical stimulation of the brain. Actually, doctors all over the world now agree that chronic pain is the major cause of disability, and the hope is that this concept will finally be the solution to this kind of pain.

That is, researchers at the University of North Carolina Health Care demonstrated that they could use a weak alternating electric current to target a specific brain region to boost naturally existing brain rhythms, thereby lowering the symptoms associated with chronic back pain.

Electric-based Therapies on the Rise


Flavio Frohlich, Ph.D., and lead author of the study say they’ve done numerous studies relating to brain stimulation over several years, but they never considered chronic pain before.

“This is our first attempt ever to study chronic pain, it’s also the only study we’ve witnessed three elements of an experiment lined up perfectly. In other words, we managed to target a particular part of the brain, stimulated its activities – which in consequence caused a notable decrease in chronic pain associated symptoms.”

Well, seems like electrical stimulation will become the way to go for many therapies. Some years ago, experts from Mayo Clinic managed to treat a patient who suffered from chronic and severe face pains called Anesthesia Dolorosa, using electrical stimulation. However, the then Mayo’s M.D. Kendall Lee explained that treating a single patient is so complex that it demands the involvement of expert from all other disciplines including neurologists, pain specialists, and surgeons.

Adding to the list, a week or two ago another team of scientist announced a very exciting breakthrough in bioelectric medicine, in form of an implantable device that speeds up nerve regeneration – what they said could replace pharmaceutical treatments.

Brain Stimulation and Chronic Pain


There has been a stiff debate among researchers about this topic, one group refuting the connection between brain activity and chronic pain. However, from the recent progress, it’s clear that the link exists. Previous works say people battling this form of pain do experience “strange” brain waves or neural oscillations.

Going a bit deeper on that, brain oscillations occur in different types, depending on the brain region it originates and sometimes triggered by various activities. For instance, when a person is thinking, eating, watching a video, sleeping or daydreaming, their brain activity creates electrical patterns that can accurately be measured using EGGs (electroencephalograms). The oscillates or patterns look like waves in the EEG print.

Brain Activity

Mostly, brain activity is denoted by oscillations. Now, in this case, alpha oscillations occur and dominate when a person is silently meditating or daydreaming. So the team at Frohlich’s lab purposed to first confirm whether the alpha oscillations were present at the somatosensory cortex, and if not, plan how they can enhance the alpha waves in the region, which is located amid the brain — and thought to be the center origin for chronic pain.

For that, they recruited 20 volunteer patients who’ve suffered more than six months of chronic back pain. And subjected them to 40-minute sessions of electric brain stimulation, one and three weeks apart.

The process involved attaching an array of alternating electrodes to the scalps of patients. In one of the sessions, the scientists narrowed their focus to the somatosensory cortex with what they call tACS to boost the activity of alpha waves, which by default occur naturally. The study in full also appears in the Journal of Pain.

Now talking in summary, Julianna Prim co-first author in the study says they were very excited that their concept was able to significantly low patient back pain right away, after the very first session of brain stimulation.