SALT LAKE CITY — The Food and Drug Administration is sending a strong message to pharmaceutical companies.
Make potent prescription pain killers "unmeltable," "uncrushable" and hard to abuse - or face having the product pulled from the market.
But even more significant is the push now to find ways to deal with chronic pain without using addictive drugs at all.
Brock Roblin is among more than 100 million people in this country and 1.5 billion worldwide trying to deal with chronic pain. In his case, it's idiopathic neuropathy in his feet.
"It's been four years I've had it and the variety of intensities has gone up and up and up. Pain would be so hard that at some moments I've cracked two teeth while clinching my teeth," Roblin said.
Like many others, Roblin has been through that endless loop of prescription medications, including a sleeping pill every night for two years, and the maximum dosage on an anti-convulsant drug.
"I was taking such large amounts that it would make me feel dizzy. It would make me foggy," he said. "I just wasn't feeling myself. I hated it."
At one point, doctors were talking about implanting a spinal cord stimulator to try and block the pain.
Instead of the implant, Roblin decided to try another non-drug alternative— a series of non-invasive applied stimulations from an FDA-approved device called Calmare.
It's now going through multiple tests at medical centers and pain centers around the country. Unlike traditional electrical devices, Calmare administers 16 different algorithm signals in three second intervals. Though it hasn't been proven yet, researchers believe the stimulation may be altering the brain's interpretation of the pain signal— changing it to a no-pain signal.
According the Dr. Erick Bingham at Utah Valley Pain Relief, "it gives people another option which doesn't have any side effects," said Dr. Erick Bingham from Utah Valley Pain Relief. " While there are theories, we don't necessarily know how it works or why it works, but it does."
Roblin says he was skeptical at first because doctors had told him there was nothing out there that would help, only medication. But after multiple treatments on Calmare, the burning sensation in the feet that would keep Brock awake at nights disappeared.
"I don't take any medications anymore," he said. "I haven't been on any medications since. I no longer take any sleep medications. I actually sleep at night."
While the device doesn't treat all pain, it appears to work well for neuropathic and idiopathic conditions, like Daniel Camp who has a rogue pain in his leg called RSD. He was on narcotic pain killers and some nerve drugs that affected alertness and memory.
But after the last therapy on Calmare, the pain was gone. He was no longer dependent on drugs.
"It was after my sixth treatment that I went home that night and it just dawned on me— Wow — it's hours later and I actually feel pretty good. Now, after completing the treatments it feels like a fog has cleared. All of a sudden I'm able to just relax," Camp said.
Bill Twitchell and Herb Scratton also wanted a non-drug option.
Twitchell says his pain, at times, was excruciating.
"I felt a few tears rolling once in a while. I was gritting and holding on. It would get that severe," Twitchell said.
In both cases, the electrical algorithms decreased the pain.
"I couldn't believe that that would happen. I felt buoyant," Scratton said.
While not entirely pain free, the pain is low enough for both Bill at age 93 and Herb at 88 that the two men are back enjoying what they did before— playing golf.
In a Johns Hopkins study, patients with post-shingles pain experienced a 95 percent average reduction in pain. Researchers continue documenting dramatic results as studies enlarge into wider population of pain victims.
Former Brigham Young University professor George Pace had severe hip pain. While Calmare did not eliminate all the pain it dropped from about an eight to a two on the pain scale.
"It was just a real relief to not have that incessant - so to speak - hurting," Pace said.
For young Taylor Johnson who suffers from a form of neurovascular dystrophy, pain killers and nerve drugs were producing too many side effects.
"My mouth and throat swelled up a lot with one of them, like an allergic reaction. Sometimes I kind of hallucinated a little bit," Johnson said.
After his first series of treatments several years ago Taylor went from crutches to running and skate boarding. He described the feeling from the waves of electrical stimulations.
"It just kind of tingles and feels like needles but doesn't really hurt. Then the pain just, like, goes away," Johnson said.
Today, Taylor is competing on his high school wrestling team, pain free for the most part, but even more significant, free from prescription pain killers.
While Calmare is not the only non-drug option out there for the treatment of chronic pain - its data is convincing researchers to look for even more alternatives. The most recent numbers show 37,000 drug overdose deaths in a single year. While most are accidental, about 21,000 involved prescription drugs and of those, 75 percent were pain killers.