LAS VEGAS — The black band of rubberized fabric in Shai Gozani’s hand looks like the kind of support strap an athlete might wear around his leg. But this one has something extra — a small black box stuffed with electronics that promise a high-tech solution to severe pain.
The Quell system by NeuroMetrix Inc. of Waltham is a computer-controlled, battery-powered painkiller that uses electrical pulses rather than drugs to treat back, joint, and limb pain. The device has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is due to go on sale this summer for $250 — without a prescription.
“I don’t want to imply that it’s a replacement for medications. It’s a complement to medications,” said Gozani, who demonstrated the Quell recently at International CES, the consumer electronics convention in Las Vegas. “But it gives the patient control of their pain.”
Gozani, an electrical engineer with a doctorate in neurobiology from the University of California and an MD from Harvard, founded NeuroMetrix in 1996. The publicly traded company mostly makes diagnostic tools for doctors to treat nerve disorders. Quell is its first product designed for consumers.
Pushbutton pain relief might sound as sketchy as an ad on late-night TV, but for years, doctors have used transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS, to comfort patients. A TENS machine sends low-voltage electricity through the patient’s nervous system. In response, the patient’s body increases its output of endorphins and enkephalins, two naturally occurring chemicals that tend to reduce pain. The treatment can be an effective alternative to drugs and poses no risk of addiction.
“TENS has been applied widely in physical therapy and rehabilitation,” said Daniel Carr, director of the Pain, Research Education & Policy program at the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. “It does appear to work.”
But standard TENS machines are costly and complex devices.
“There’s electrodes, and you’re wired up,” Gozani said. “You look like you should be in an intensive care unit.”
So Gozani and his colleagues got to work on a user-friendly version. In 2012, the company won approval from the Food and Drug Administration for SENSUS, a prescription-based device similar to Quell that’s been used by about 7,000 people so far. Quell is a next-generation version, designed so that anybody with an ache can simply buy it at retail, as they would a bottle of aspirin.
Craig Williams, a podiatrist in Oxford, Miss., has been using the SENSUS since July of 2014. “Just had remarkable results with them,” said Williams. “It doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for the majority of people.” Williams said that an over-the-counter version could be a big help for people suffering from chronic pain.
The Quell device is strapped to the upper calf, no matter which body part is aching. Here, there are many nerves right below the skin, making it ideal for transmitting Quell pulses to the brain. Moreover, it’s a relatively inconspicuous location.
When the device is switched on, it transmits pulses for an hour, then switches off for an hour, to prevent the user from building up resistance. Relief from the pain should come about 10 minutes after the pulses begin and last for about 40 minutes after the treatment stops. The Quell’s battery can power the device for several days before it needs recharging.
Some people have chronic pain so severe they can’t sleep, but the Quell can detect when a person is at rest and then automatically reduce its dosage of electricity. It also has a Bluetooth radio so it can communicate with the owner’s smartphone. An app for Apple iPhones or Google Android phones will let the user track battery life and monitor treatment cycles.
Unlike most consumer electronics products, Quell will be made in Massachusetts, giving NeuroMetrix greater quality control.
“It makes so much sense to manufacture locally, where you can drive to your manufacturer and work on issues, instead of having to fly halfway across the world,” Gozani said. Electronics for the device are being sourced from a contract manufacturer in West Bridgewater, and the finished devices will be assembled at a NeuroMetrix facility in Woburn.
Gozani said once the Quell proves its worth, the market for personal TENS devices will get crowded. “I hope for competition because I think that validates the space,” he said. “But right now, we’re unique.”