An electrical device helps fend off symptoms of opioid withdrawals—a crucial step toward beating addiction.
It doesn’t take long for a person suffering opioid addiction to begin feeling the effects of withdrawal. Symptoms—which can include abdominal pain, anxiety, depression, diarrhea, muscle cramps, nausea, and vomiting—begin just hours after the last dose. When symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea are severe enough, people can even die from withdrawals.
This is one reason opioid addictions are so difficult to defeat. People suffering from addiction will do anything to avoid the onset of these symptoms, which are often compared to a severe case of the flu. But now, treatment professionals have found a promising new way to curb symptoms of opioid withdrawals—without the use of opioid replacement drugs.
Enter the NSS-2 BRIDGE, a device that sends electrical pulses to select groups of nerves to prevent the brain from feeling the pains of opioid withdrawal. It’s being tested across the United States, including at The Addiction Healing Center at St. Francis Hospital in Charleston.
St. Francis is the first place in West Virginia to use the BRIDGE device on recovering addicts. “We were skeptical,” says Joe Deegan, a licensed clinical social worker at St. Francis.
But then a patient came in who was in the throes of extreme withdrawal symptoms. “She was really sick. She was like, ‘I’ll try anything,’” Deegan says. The hospital fitted her with the battery-powered device, which looks similar to a cochlear implant. They attached it behind her ear using double-sided tape, then placed three electrodes—which are actually arrays of tiny needles—in and around her ear. The placement is important, as it aims the electrical impulses at particular branches of nerves.
The results were almost immediate. Within an hour, the patient’s symptoms were drastically reduced. Instead of being sick for days, as most patients are when going through withdrawal, she was able to begin therapy to overcome her addictions that same day. Deegan says the patient even began touting the BRIDGE device’s effectiveness to other patients. The hospital has now used the device with about 20 patients. “The device works dramatically every time. We haven’t seen it not work for anybody,” he says.
The battery in the device can run for up to five days, at which point many people suffering from addiction should be past the worst period of withdrawal symptoms. BRIDGE devices can also be used in conjunction with other treatment solutions.
When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the device for clinical use in November 2017, FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb stressed the importance of finding new, innovative ways to treat addiction. “While we continue to pursue better medicines for the treatment of opioid use disorder, we also need to look to devices that can assist in this therapy,” he said in a press release.
While Deegan admits the BRIDGE device only tackles one aspect of addiction recovery, it is a step in the right direction. “It’s another tool in the toolbox.”