When Shaun Rahimi was in college, he experienced something that’s disturbingly common: chronic pain. A severe herniated disc was the culprit, and thousands of dollars worth of medication, physical therapy, and acupuncture sessions later, Rahimi was still struggling.
Then a physical therapist introduced him to transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation, or TENS, a decades-old treatment that uses electrodes to send pulsing electric current to nerves near the pain site. It worked. Rahimi took the Walkman-sized TENS device home, keeping it in his back pocket during the day. The electrodes stayed attached to the painful parts of his body for up to 12 hours a day.
“I went from constant pain to control over my symptoms. I could sit using a computer and think,” he says. “My question was, why aren’t these more popular? I wanted to make a version that wasn’t $10,000, bulky, expensive, and complicated–something instead like a Band Aid, discrete and affordable.” That was two years ago.
This week, Rahimi’s company, Cur, unveiled an affordable, bandage-sized TENS device for the mass market–a wearable pain relief device that lasts for 30 hours on a single battery charge. The device, which is available via crowdfunding campaign, can purportedly provide muscle pain relief within 10 seconds, no matter where that pain is on the body.
Cur’s secret sauce is a patent related to the way in which the device automatically adjusts to the body. In a physical therapist’s office, a patient has the device attached to a body part, like the knee or neck. The doctor then adjusts the amplitude of the device to see how strong it can be without it getting uncomfortable. The TENS electrodes create something of a vibrating nerve massage–the effectiveness of the pain relief depends on things like pulse frequency and length.
These are adjustments typically made by a doctor. Cur does them automatically using three sensors: an accelerometer, a bioimpedence sensor, and a temperature sensor. Combined, these sensors are supposed to figure out where the device is on the body and adjust the electric current so that it’s optimized for that location. At the moment, the device can sense its location on specific body parts, like the back or the arm. Cur hopes to eventually get it down to the resolution of a specific muscle group, such as the left or right calf.
“The miniaturization part of this is easy. It’s the nuance, the insight that’s hard. How do you remove the need for 50 buttons but have a device that works like a clinical machine?” says Rahimi, who has worked at medical device companies since age 15, with stints at NeuroPace, Sadra Medical, and Abbott Labs. The design firm Huge is helping to craft the new product’s exterior.
TENS devices have a controversial history in medical literature. The American Academy of Neurology, for example, recommends TENS for nerve pain associated with diabetes, but not for chronic low back pain.
“There’s a lot of positive and negative data for different indications. When a researcher knows how to use a TENS device, it tends to go better. It’s also about methods of data collection. [A researcher] might put a TENS device on a patient for half an hour and take pain relief measurements next day, but the point is to be in the moment,” says Rahimi.
Cur hasn’t yet done any clinical trials. Nonetheless, Rahimi believes that the device can provide pain relief for hours and even days after half an hour of use. And the placebo effect is real: think it’s helping, and you might get some benefit. At the very least, it’s unlikely to do any harm other than cost you some money; TENS devices have been proven safe over the years, with few adverse effects.
Cur is available now for $149. After the crowdfunding campaign ends, it will retail for $299. Shipping begins next winter, only once the device has been approved by the FDA.