Amid Opioid Crisis, Some Patients Turn to Tech Alternatives

CNN/ Newswire | 8/7/2017, 12:26 p.m.
David Nipple was riding his motorcycle on a highway in Tennessee when he was hit by a drunk driver. His ...

Kaya Yurieff

(CNN Money) -- David Nipple was riding his motorcycle on a highway in Tennessee when he was hit by a drunk driver. His left leg was severed above his knee.

Medical workers didn't expect him to survive. He was bleeding quickly and had to be airlifted to nearby Nashville for treatment.

That was in 2014. Since the accident, Nipple has gone to rehabilitation and had multiple surgeries on his arm and leg.

He was prescribed narcotics, but he didn't want to take them.

"I don't care to take that stuff. I've seen what [opioid addiction] has done to too many people ... and other amputees, too" Nipple told CNN Tech.

The U.S. is in the midst of an opioid epidemic -- more than 90 people die from opioid overdoses each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These deaths include those from prescription drugs, such as oxycodone, as well as illegal drugs like heroin.

Opioids are drugs that change the way your brain perceives pain. They can be addictive and people taking them often develop a tolerance, so they need higher doses for the same effect as time goes on.

As an opioid alternative, Nipple found a clinical trial through Facebook to test a wearable device called the Sprint PNS System from startup SPR Therapeutics.

The device uses small electrical pulses to stimulate nerves, providing patients targeted pain relief without drugs, surgery, anesthesia or a permanent implant. Nipple was among a small group of people who wore the device for about 8 weeks in 2015.

The wearable stimulator, which is about the size of an Apple Watch, is attached to the skin via a patch. It connects to a thread-like wire, which delivers the electrical pulses. It's inserted by a physician near the nerves causing pain.

The wire is removed at the end of the 30-day treatment period. The company is in the process of commercializing the device, which received FDA clearance last year.

Nipple, who said his pain was on average an eight or a nine (on a scale of one to 10), noticed relief soon after after using the device. His pain levels dropped to about a one or a two.

More than two years after the trial, he's more mobile and sleeping better. He's even ridden his 3-wheel Spyder bike from North Carolina to Wisconsin.

Study participants experienced similar results: The company found 72% of patients treated with the Sprint system had a 50% or more reduction in pain intensity or pain interference. About 78% of users still had "clinically significant" pain relief 12 months after receiving the treatment.

However, because the device is new, there aren't other studies on its effectiveness besides the company's own data.

Related: Shareholders reject CEO's pay package amid concerns over opioid epidemic

Nipple's interest in an opioid alternative is a part of a growing trend. A new study, conducted in part by SPR, released on Thursday found 92% of respondents would look for surgeons who offered effective pain management options that did not include opioids.