Medical devices can play a key role in addressing Canada’s chronic pain crisis

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By Peter Tomashewski

The federal government’s recent decision to create a task force to find ways to better manage chronic pain in Canada is encouraging news for anyone who plays a role in trying to tackle this incredibly complex health crisis.

The toll of chronic pain on individual Canadians, families and our country as a whole is staggering. One in five of us lives with chronic pain. For many, this constant pain is devastating to their quality of life. It can lead to lost productivity, an inability to work, damaged relationships with loved ones, depression, drug addiction, suicide, and avoidable overdose deaths. It also costs our healthcare and social systems billions of dollars per year.

The headlines about the opioid epidemic that has killed thousands of Canadians over the past few years often focus on the issue of addiction and its often tragic outcome, but what about exploring the root cause of the use of opioids?

We often hear stories of people who began taking opioids after surgery and became addicted before they could wean themselves off. What we don’t hear about as often are the stories of people with chronic neuropathic pain — pain that results from permanent damage and must be managed for life.

Chronic pain is so inextricably linked to the reliance and misuse of opioids, it’s in the public interest to devote a similar amount of attention to better understanding chronic pain and how to help Canadians treat it, more effectively.

The national task force recently announced by Health Minister Ginette Pepitas Taylor and its plan to consult with stakeholders across the country over the next three years is a welcome start.

As a company with a 40-year history developing innovative pain management technologies, we urge Canada’s chronic pain task force to consider as part of its review how medical devices and therapies can be used as an alternative to opioids to alleviate chronic pain.

We have seen firsthand countless times over the past four decades how these therapies and devices can help patients overcome pain and regain quality of life, without reliance on opioids.

Consider the experience of one patient, Sarah Graff, who had lived with debilitating pain in her back and legs for more than 10 years. The mother of two young children had turned to pain meds and regular spinal blocks to try to manage but continued to endure pain on a daily basis that made it difficult to enjoy a normal life.

She was eventually referred to the Neuromodulation Program at Hamilton Health Sciences where she was implanted with a Medtronic spinal cord stimulator, which delivers mild electrical pulses to interrupt pain impulses before they reach her brain. The results were immediate. The pain that had dominated her days for more than a decade was gone. Now pain-free, Sarah credits the treatment with allowing her to regain her life and her happiness.

It’s stories like Sarah’s that highlight the role technology can play in helping to address Canada’s chronic pain crisis and hopefully lessen the deadly impact of the opioid epidemic.

We recognize that pain management therapies such as the ones we develop are not the complete answer to ending chronic pain or the opioid epidemic. Our device-delivered therapies don’t treat opioid addiction. But they can provide patients alternative ways to reduce pain and reduce exposure to high-dose opioids and long-term systemic opioid use that could lead to misuse and addiction.

Medtronic is committed to partnering with health system stakeholders to disrupt the opioid epidemic by providing solutions for improved pain management. We are working to increase awareness of the benefits of long-term, proven pain management solutions among patients, healthcare providers, payers, regulators, patient advocacy groups, and government decision-makers — solutions that can reduce or even eliminate the need for opioids.

No single entity can solve Canada’s opioid and pain crises alone. We need to consider all options, and get the right treatment, to the right patient, at the right time — together.

Peter Tomashewski is Senior Director, Restorative Therapies Group at Medtronic Canada.