NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — There has been a possible breakthrough in treatment for millions of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers in the U.S.
Instead of powerful and expensive drugs that could have serious side effects, the new treatment is electrical.
As CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez explained, it actually stops the painful inflammation of arthritis.
Nancy Jennings, 75, has suffered with rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, for more than a decade. It’s crippling effects can be seen in her bent fingers.
“Makes you feel a little stiff at times in the knuckles and hands,” she said.
Some days Jennings can’t even button her blouse, and the medications she takes to treat the symptoms are expensive.
Now, doctors at the Feinstein Institute at Northwell Health in Manhasset, Long Island are turning to what they call bioelectronic medicine as a way to actually slow or stop the inflammation in RA.
“Inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis occurs because the immune system overproduces molecules called cytokines, and these cytokines are like hormones that actually cause damaging inflammation. They cause the joints to become painful and swollen, they cause the cartilage in the bone to erode,” Dr. Kevin Tracey explained.
The technique involves placing a small electrode on a nerve in the neck called the vagus which runs from the vein to help regulate a number of internal organs.
What Dr. Tracey and colleagues discovered is that stimulating that nerve also keeps white blood cells from producing inflammatory chemicals.
“Using an electronic device to target the nervous system to take the place of some of those powerful drugs, because the nervous system itself can turn off the cytokines,” he said.
A clinical trial in 17 RA patients found that the nerve stimulator reduced their inflammation, pain, and improved mobility and function.
In some patients the device may actually be sufficient so that they don’t have to take additional drugs. Other patients will have to continue to take drugs.
This was a small clinical trial and larger studies will be needed to gain FDA approval. Still, it was the first time the nervous ssytem has been used to alter the immune system.
If proven effective, bioelectrics could relieve other inflammatory immune diseases like Crohn’s and psoriasis.