SALT LAKE CITY -- A new FDA-approved device to relieve pain is being used on a 17-year-old teenager who was hit by lightning in Utah's Dixie two months ago.
Alex Lambson and Dane Zdunich were both hit as they stood outside Snow Canyon High School in St. George, but Alex sustained the most serious injuries.
The two students had taken refuge from a fast moving storm near a small pine tree just outside the north entrance. The bolt initially hit Dane then arced and hit Alex in the chest. He suffered the most critical injuries, including burns over 40 percent of his body and nerve damage that produces excruciating pain.
As Alex describes it, "I get pretty much every kind of pain imaginable. Sometimes it feels like I'm getting stabbed. Other times, it feels just like someone is squeezing my arm really hard."
In a series of treatments Alex is getting hooked up to a unique machine that ironically uses electricity to relieve pain. While the lightning strike was his villain, the new FDA-approved device called Calmare is now is friend. He can sleep, something he hasn't done a lot of for weeks now.
Dr. Robert Chalmers, with the Spero Clinic in St. George, says there's not much data on Calmare since it's still new. The Mayo Clinic is about to begin major clinical trials to see how a larger population of patients responds to the treatment.
"It has to do with manipulating how your body understands what's happening in the peripheral nerves," he says. "Instead of using drugs by manipulating chemicals, we work with one specific part, which is the electricity that travels through nerves."
In theory, doctors believe the electrical manipulation may be re- training the brain that pain is not there, especially after an injury has healed. It's based on what happens in the Phantom Limb Syndrome experienced by amputees. Though the limb is no longer there, the brain, in mirrored image therapy, is sort of re-taught that everything is OK. It's no longer necessary to recognize the pain sensations.
According to Chalmers, "You can undo what basically has been imprinted into that patient's brain by being in pain for a long time."
On the pain scale of one to 10, Alex was at 10 when he left the hospital.
"Usually five minutes after I get plugged in my pain is almost completely gone," he says.
After 16 treatments, relief intervals are getting longer. When the pain does return, it's not as bad. "Normally," he says, "it only gets to a five or six now."
In fact, after the first 24 hours after treatment, it returns at only two to three on the scale.
Chalmers has treated 32 patients since he started using the machine six months ago. Results vary, depending on nerve injuries and how long patients have suffered from chronic pain.
He says, "Some of these people have had pain for 10 to 11 years. In fact, in some cases, what happens is the pain becomes the disease."
Alex hopes that's not his plight, that his lightning-damaged nerves will heal and the brain will reboot itself.
He's out of a wheelchair, walking for the first time, and the pain is diminishing, though slowly.
The Calmare device is currently in only 21 U.S. medical facilities. The one in St. George is the only one west of the state of Wisconsin.
Chalmers has used it on patients suffering back pain, failed back surgery, neuropathy of feet and hands, pain related to antibiotics and chemotherapy, and what is called Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome. He sees the machine as another piece of technology that could be added to the arsenal pain clinics use to treat chronic pain.
"It's not a cure," he says. "It doesn't fix nerve root irritation that hasn't healed, but it can make it better. It can improve the outcome of pain without some of the side effects from treatments like injections, surgery or narcotics."