50 years ago, researchers treated chronic pain with electricity

Excerpt from the March 20, 1971, issue of Science News

a composite image of a person in a wheelchair progressing to walking with a walker

Sending electrical impulses to the spinal cord has been used to relieve pain for decades. Now, more precise stimulation has been shown to help some people paralyzed by injuries walk with support.

Jamani Caillet/EPFL

Fooling the brainScience News, March 20, 1971

Chronic pain can be treated surgically by severing nerves or by destroying a small part of the brain that perceives pain, but these methods are destructive. Doctors … are now treating selected cases of chronic pain … by using electrical impulses [on the spinal cord] to fool the brain.


In 1971, the idea to treat chronic pain by sending electrical impulses to the spinal cord was not brand-new. Researchers tested the first implantable device in patients in the United States in 1967. Such implants gained momentum as a pain treatment in the 1970s, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the technique in 1989.

Technological advances in the decades since have led to more effective and precise devices. One stimulator interacts with cells in the spinal cord to adjust the amount of electricity based on a patient’s needs, researchers reported in 2020. But spinal cord stimulation can do more than relieve pain: Sending impulses to specific nerve cells at precise times has been shown to help people paralyzed by severe injuries walk again (SN: 11/24/18, p. 6).

Erin I. Garcia de Jesus is a staff writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington and a master’s in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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