Each year after their big Thanksgiving meal, Tess Wilson's family has a tradition of playing games in a gym to burn off some calories. For much of her high school and college years, Tess spent that afternoon sitting on the sidelines watching the rest of her family run around. Severe, chronic pain made it impossible for her to join in the fun.
Thanksgiving Day 2014 was different. On that day, Tess was in the thick of the action. She played capture-the-flag, hide-and-go-seek, soccer and tag.
"I was incredibly sore the next day, but not in a chronic pain way," she says. "I just used muscles that I had forgotten were there."
The change came as a result of Tess' participation in a a clinical research trial at Mayo Clinic that studied the effects of a new treatment for chronic nerve pain, called scrambler therapy. After two weeks of the therapy, Tess found relief from the constant pain that had been plaguing her for five years.
Fighting daily pain
At 17, Tess was a high school varsity athlete. She enjoyed being active and ran in 5K races. That year she suffered an injury to her right foot. Although the damage seemed minor, the pain wouldn't go away. As time went on, it got worse, spreading from her foot, up her shin, into her knee.
Tess was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome. It's an uncommon form of chronic pain that usually affects an arm or a leg. The condition typically develops after an injury, surgery, stroke or heart attack. But the pain is out of proportion to the severity of the initial injury. Symptoms may change over time, and they can vary from one person to another. The most common symptoms are continuous burning or throbbing pain, swelling, redness and hypersensitivity, particularly to cold and touch. The condition can be debilitating, and effective treatment often is hard to find.
"I was in pain almost every single day," says Tess. "I went from running 5Ks to relying on crutches or pain medications just to walk around the grocery store. My skin became so hypersensitive that a sock or even a slight breeze would cause excruciating pain."
Tess tried treatment after treatment. Nothing provided consistent relief. In the fall of 2014, the pain was intense, and Tess felt like she was stuck. When she heard about the scrambler therapy study at Mayo Clinic, Tess was eager for the chance to try an innovative solution. But in light of her lack of success with other treatments, she wasn't particularly optimistic.
Retraining the brain
Doctors suspected Tess's complex regional pain syndrome was a result of nerve damage. The damaged nerves were sending inaccurate signals to her brain that triggered the pain she felt in her foot, shin and knee.
Scrambler therapy works by using a nerve stimulation device to mix another signal into the transmission from the damaged nerves to the brain. Basically, it replaces the information that signals pain with information that does not signal pain. The therapy involves placing electrodes connected to the scrambler device on the skin near damaged nerves. The scrambler sends painless electrical signals to those nerves that they relay to the brain. The new signals break the pain cycle and retrain the brain to understand that it is not really experiencing pain.
"The first day I was hooked up to the scrambler, I didn’t know what it to expect," says Tess. "The buzz and prickle of the electricity was such a foreign sensation. It wasn’t painful, but not quite pleasant. It almost tickled. One of the buzzing waves washed over a particularly painful area of my knee and replaced the pain with the buzzing, only for a moment and only in that spot. I was surprised, but I held onto my skepticism."
Slowly, though, Tess began to notice a big difference. After five days of scrambler therapy, she was able to relax in a hot tub — a luxury she hadn't enjoyed since her original injury because both water and temperature changes usually made her pain skyrocket. By the end of her two-week treatment, she could walk pain-free for the first time in years. Her sleep had also improved dramatically because she could go to bed without discomfort at night.
Looking to a brighter future
Tess finished her treatment just before Thanksgiving 2014, when she was finally able to join in the games with her family. Over the next month, the pain remained at bay. She started a part-time job and began running again.
As can sometimes happen for people undergoing scrambler therapy, Tess began to notice the pain slowly returning throughout the next several months. In April 2015, she went back to Mayo Clinic for a four-day booster treatment with the scrambler. The results did not disappoint her, and Tess is now optimistic about the long-term possibility of keeping her chronic pain in check.
"I had accepted the fact that I’d probably live my entire life in pain," she says. "Now, the scrambler is working wonders for me. For the first time in five years, I feel like I’ve finally found a treatment that can permanently change my future."