MUSC researchers want to know if brain stimulation can treat chronic pain without medication

Almost every day for two weeks, Kyle Skidmore put on a swim cap and allowed a technician to use a magnetic coil to stimulate parts of his brain.

Julia Imperatore, a research specialist, had marked the swim cap so she could tailor the stimulation for Skidmore each of the 13 times he came to the Medical University of South Carolina. He agreed to take part in a clinical trial that aims to prove that this technology, called “transcranial magnetic stimulation” or “TMS,” can relieve ongoing pain.

TMS is already used to treat depression and migraines. Studies also have shown it can be helpful in reducing chronic pain, but so far those studies have not been sufficient to win approval from the Food and Drug Administration. The research comes at a time when specialists search for answers to an epidemic of painkiller addiction sweeping the country.

Skidmore said at least for him, TMS seems to have worked. He said he agreed to participate in the trial because he has been “searching for something that’s going to give me my life back, so my days aren’t consumed with pain.” He said if TMS is approved for chronic pain, he would definitely seek it out.

The side effects of TMS, which was developed in Charleston, are minimal and often include headaches. Dr. Colleen Hanlon, who is leading the research at MUSC, said the underlying problem is that there are very few options available to treat chronic pain that are as powerful as opioids.

“We’re trying to give another tool to use to treat chronic pain,” Hanlon said.

MUSC is recruiting all adults younger than 65 who rely on an opioid painkiller prescription for the clinical trial.

Traditional opioid painkillers work by binding to opiate receptors in the brain. TMS can achieve the same thing, Hanlon said, by mimicking that effect. Magnetic fields deliver a pulse to the brain, which Skidmore said feels strange but is not particularly painful.

A key difference between opioids and TMS: In order for opioids to continue to be effective, a patient needs more and more. That does not appear to be the case with TMS, Hanlon said. People don’t develop a tolerance to it.