Breaking through the pain barrier

Posted on in Research

Physiotherapists at The James Cook University Hospital are conducting a clinical trial to see whether an electrical nerve stimulating device known as TENS can help relieve debilitating hand pain.

Patients with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) in their upper limbs are now being recruited for the study as part of a joint project with Teesside University and Leeds Beckett University.

CRPS is a poorly understood condition in which a person experiences persistent severe and debilitating pain which is usually confined to one limb.

physio team demonstrate tens device

The skin of the affected body part can become so sensitive that just a slight touch, bump or even a change in temperature can provoke intense pain. Affected areas can also become swollen, stiff or undergo fluctuating changes in colour or temperature.

The trial aims to look at whether transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) – devices available from major pharmacies – could be used as an effective method of pain relief for the condition.

TENS delivers small electrical impulses to the affected limb to block or reduce the pain signals going to the spinal cord and brain. The electric currents can also stimulate the production of endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers.

“We already have four patients taking part but we need to recruit a total of 20 over a two year period,” said physiotherapist Richard King who dedicates one day a week to research thanks to recent research funding he has secured from the British Association of Hand Therapists and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.”

“Patients will be randomised into two groups and half will receive the TENS treatment.

“It’s fantastic to be working in partnership with both universities. They bring the academic knowledge and we bring the clinical knowledge. It’s a really great collaboration.”

And it’s not the first time the department has forged links with Teesside University. Richard and fellow physiotherapist Victoria Robinson recently carried out research into the effectiveness of the hospital’s explain pain sessions with support from the university’s Dr Cormac Ryan and Professor Denis Martin.

Explain pain is a two-hour educational session which aim to demonstrate to patients that pain is not just caused by injuries and tissue damage but can also be caused by nerves over-reporting pain signals to the brain. One of the key messages given to patients is that resting the affected area may not always be the best option.

“Interestingly the results from the research show that while patients learned the information, many did not accept that it applied to their pain,” said Richard who is now conducting further research into the issue with the support of a grant from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.

Anyone interested in finding out more about the CRPS trial can email