Very often, it’s the fear of drug withdrawal that drives people deeper into their addictions and further away from the help they so desperately need. It’s an all-too-familiar refrain among heroin addicts: “I kept using so I’d feel normal.” But “normal” isn’t sustainable—and, unfortunately, it claims the lives of countless addicts before they can ever get treatment.
However a new medical device could change that. According to a recent USA Today article, an Indiana firm has developed a device that, when implanted behind the ear, can potentially “make outpatient detox doable for thousands.” It’s a prospect that’s as promising as it is groundbreaking—a tool that would provide addicts an extra push to get through the first inevitable, agonizing experience of withdrawal.
Staving Off Sickness
Opioid addiction continues to be a national health crisis—a full-scale epidemic. In the year 2014, opioid-related deaths quadrupled based on the numbers from 1999. From 2000 to 2014, nearly 500,000 Americans died from a drug overdose, which puts the number at nearly 80 Americans who die every day—largely due to heroin. The USA Today article gives an equally jaw-dropping statistic: 435,000 Americans are currently addicted to heroin.
Now, thanks to a device called the Neuro-Stim System Bridge (AKA “The Bridge”), addicts can actually seek help before it’s too late. The idea behind The Bridge isn’t to end opiate addiction—it’s only meant to curb acute symptoms while addicts go through withdrawal. The device is described as slightly larger than a half-dollar coin requiring the user to wear it for five full days—just enough time to get addicts to the next steps of their recovery, including Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) and an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP).
Dubbed “the first and only of its kind” by Innovative Health Solutions, the device reportedly works within the first 30 minutes. For addicts, this is a Godsend. Withdrawal symptoms typically include body aches, shaking, vomiting and diarrhea. “Imagine the worst flu you’ve ever had. Now imagine it ten times worse,” a substance abuse expert said in a press release for The Bridge. “People come to me and say that their family member is going through withdrawal. They ask if he’s going to die. I tell them, ‘he’s probably not going to die, but he’s going to want to.’” As the USA Today article notes, addicts often get caught up in a vicious circle: “Many people who try to quit using the drugs start using again within a few hours if only to ease the pain.” So if nothing else, The Bridge may be a crucial stop-gap between cessation of drug use and treatment.
How it Works
As an alternative to all the conventional drug-based options out there, The Bridge works by hitting the body where addiction starts: the brain. The device “fits behind the ear and sends electrical feedback to the brain, blocking the pain of detox.” In many ways, it’s just like a radio frequency jammer which overpowers the main signal with a stronger signal of its own. “It treats at the level of the brain and affects the part of the brain that fires pain signals and stops that part of the brain from firing pain signals,” a rep from Innovative Health Solutions said.
Still, the device isn’t a magic bullet when it comes to addiction solutions. It’s only designed to be part of a larger, more comprehensive program of treatment. Craig Kinyon, President/CEO of the Indiana-based Reid Health, commented that the device couldn’t come at a better time. “Our health system recognizes the impact of heroin and opiate addiction on our communities. We have to attack this problem with all tools at our disposal,” Kinyon said. “We also recognize that technology alone won’t be effective without addiction counseling. In other words, we need to continually treat the ongoing disease of addiction.” When it comes to addiction and withdrawal symptoms, the implant may very well be exactly what the doctor ordered.
But Does it Actually Work?
Very few scientific, peer-reviewed studies on The Bridge exist, so it’s difficult to say just how effective the device truly is. Early signs, however, point to “very.” The USA Today piece observed that “a company-sponsored study of fewer than 50 patients found that almost 90 percent of people who used the device made it through the first week of detox and into secondary therapy.” Some of the most convincing evidence, however, can be found in the people profiled in the article. One 24-year-old heroin addict “made it through withdrawal and into counseling and onto medication-assisted treatment [and]has been sober ever since”—a feat the patient was unable to do with drugs like Suboxone or methadone.
Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration signed off on the device’s safety, which helps The Bridge gain traction with the medical community. In the interim, Innovative Health Solutions has been donating the device to local health departments throughout Indiana that don’t have inpatient treatment programs. At one facility in “the second smallest county in Indiana,” The Bridge successfully helped usher 37 patients through withdrawal. “It’s not a matter of if [the device]will work,” one of the center’s directors said in USA Today. “It’s a matter of will I ever see a case where it doesn’t work.”
The devices each sell for $495, with the full treatment program running roughly $16,000 over the course of 16 months. One senator put that figure in context, arguing that many opioid addicts run afoul of the law. To put an addict in a correctional facility for one year, it would cost over $44,000—more than twice the cost of The Bridge treatment. “We have a very good opportunity to rehab an individual,” Indiana Senator Jim Merritt weighed in on the merits of The Bridge. “We need to make sure this is recognized as a disease and not a character flaw. We need to offer hope and empathy. But when you get down to it, in terms of dollars and cents, it’s crazy.” Plans are currently underway to get The Bridge covered through insurance. In the meantime, The Bridge proves that there aren’t any magic, quick-fix cures when it comes to the insidious, complex nature of addiction and withdrawal. The device is merely a much-needed nudge onto the road to recovery—a road that many heroin addicts wouldn’t necessarily walk on their own.
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