Drug-free relief for chronic pain sufferers, thanks to a wearable device and its app

Atomic Object designed the new app for Quell, a wearable, Bluetooth-compatible and FDA-approved pain relief device that stimulates sensory nerves in the leg, triggering the body’s natural pain-relief mechanisms.
The statistics on chronic pain aren’t pretty: more than 100 million Americans suffer from it, at a cost of around $600 billion a year in medical treatments and lost productivity.

Part of the problem is that pain relief treatments haven’t kept pace with other areas of medical innovation. We still treat pain with the same basic therapies and drugs—opioids and NSAIDs like ibuprofen, mostly—that we did 50 years ago. Thanks to a new FDA-approved wearable technology and its accompanying software, though, chronic pain sufferers finally have a new treatment option on the horizon, and the initial results offer something to get excited about.

Atomic Object recently unveiled its new app and an accompanying case study for Quell, a wearable pain-management device from NeuroMetrix, Inc. Quell debuted in January 2015 at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where Forbes included the device in its list of the “five most disruptive innovations at CES”.

Wearable pain management technology from Quell.This month, the Quell app went live, which brings to life the Bluetooth functions on the device and allows iOS and Android users to monitor and control their pain treatment from their smartphone.

Designed to help people with conditions like neuropathy, fibromyalgia, sciatica and osteoarthritis, Quell is the first FDA-cleared device in a new class of pain-relief technology called Wearable Intensive Nerve Stimulation (WINS). The Quell device—which uses a brand of technology that NeuroMetrix has patented under the trademarked name “OptiTherapy”—inserts into a lightweight black band that you wrap around your upper calf, just below the knee.

The actual Quell device is an electrode-equipped gel pad that contacts the skin; when the device is active for a therapy session, the electrode stimulates sensory nerves in the calf muscles. These nerve stimulations send neural impulses to the brain, which in turn triggers natural pain-blocking mechanisms in the body.

It’s important to note that this deceptively simple idea—a little black band buzzing away around your calf—doesn’t provide localized relief around the area of the device. The responses triggered in the brain lead to pain sensation being blocked throughout the body, according to NeuroMetrix. And the results of initial user testing, published in a recent clinical study, are impressive: 81 percent of users reported improvement in their chronic pain symptoms and overall health, and two-thirds of users also reported that they decreased their use of pain medications as a result of using Quell.

“Eight out of ten is pretty compelling, because nothing works all the time when it comes to chronic pain,” says Alyssa Fenoglio, director of marketing for NeuroMetrix. “A lot of times drugs have less efficacy than what [Quell is] able to deliver without medication.”

Quell is also the only device of its kind that’s approved for overnight wear, Fenoglio says, so users can wear it to bed. NeuroMetrix designed Quell with an accelerometer and a number of sleep-centric customization settings that come into play when using it with the app.

Although the device delivers therapy in one-hour “sessions,” delivered every other hour throughout the day, Fenoglio says that NeuroMetrix wanted to make sure the sessions wouldn’t interrupt daily activity, like an “appointment” the user has to sit through. The idea is that you can go for a run, take a nap, do whatever you like while Quell goes about its business with minimal fuss; later, you can track your therapy with the app to make informed judgments about how your therapy is working, in conjunction with your doctor.

“[Quell is] designed it to fit into people’s lifestyles,” she says. “You can work out with it on, sleep with it on. It’s not waterproof, but other than that, we want you to put it on and go about your daily life.”

Quell’s retail price is set at $249, and is available at Quell’s official web store.

The Atomic Object-designed Quell app also allows users to monitor battery life, customize time between therapy sessions, upload their therapy history to a Quell Health Cloud that Atomic Object engineered, and take advantage of some of the sleep features, like tracking sleep quality and setting the device to shut off or operate at a reduced intensity once the accelerometer determines the user is asleep. Quell’s accelerometer even works with the app to determine the user’s activity level at the time of a therapy session, and can adjust the intensity level of therapy accordingly.

The app also provides a few other handy features, like keeping track of when the device’s electrode needs to be replaced and reminding the user. An electrode lasts for about two weeks of typical use, according to the company’s website, and a pack of two electrodes sells for $29.99.

Atomic Object's Quell software team. From left, Jordan Schaenzle, Brian Vanderwal, Patrick Bacon, and Scott Vokes. Designers Kim Wolting and Brittany Hunter and contractor Kevin White also contributed.Atomic Object software developer Patrick Bacon, who acted as the project lead for the Quell app and worked on it extensively along with software developer Jordan Schaenzle, says one of the company’s goals with the app was to make pain treatment less reliant on patient recall and anecdotal evidence, by harvesting treatment data from the Quell and tracking it for the user in an easy-to-follow fashion.

“One of the things [NeuroMetrix] found is that people have a short memory, and if they’re not feeling as well for some period of time, they won’t really remember how often they’re using the device,” Bacon says. “So they can look at the app and say, ‘OK, look, I haven’t been using it lately as much as I was before, even though it seemed like I was.’ So they’re syncing some of that info so you can show it to a doctor or use it to see how things are going lately.”

Bacon also says that one of Atomic Object’s goals with the Quell app was to create an “all-ages” piece of software that would be intuitive and non-intimidating, even for older users with limited smartphone and app experience.

“It’s targeted at people with chronic nerve pain, and that tends to be a little older audience on the whole, though not always—so we tried to keep this simple,” Bacon says. “There’s not too much data presented at once, and the screens are hopefully pretty straightforward with a large and clear presentation of what’s going on.”

“There’s a lot of data you can dig around in,” he continues, “but if you’re only comfortable with the first screen that comes up; it’s designed to provide value even if you never get out of that first screen.”

NeuroMetrix decided to pair with Atomic Object on a recommendation from international design company IDEO, a past AO collaborator who worked with NeuroMetrix on Quell’s design. According to Fenoglio, NeuroMetrix plans to continue working with Atomic Object on new features and developments for Quell, some of which will be announced early next year.

“We still have projects going with [Atomic Object], so I think that’s the best compliment we can give,” she says. “That speaks to the relationship we’ve had. They were really great at translating our vision into something that was easy to use and technologically advanced on the app side of the project.”

Besides the encouraging clinical trials and press, Quell has also been featured on QVC and “Good Morning America.” Atomic Object’s Jordan Schaenzle says that the excitement and press coverage around Quell, along with the device’s potential for widespread impact across different demographics, make the Quell app one of the most gratifying projects he’s worked on.

“It’s something that almost anyone can recognize as a cool new thing,” Schaenzle says, “where if you’re just developing a website for someone then people don’t really care about that. So it’s fun to tell your family and friends, ‘Oh, guess what, this product we worked on was just on ‘Good Morning America.’”

Bacon agrees, and adds that he also bought a Quell for his father, who suffers from Type 2 diabetes.

“A lot of things we do [at Atomic Object] might make someone’s life better, but in the way that, you know, something they did at work takes half as much time,” he says. “It’s a very different thing from someone that really couldn’t walk to the grocery store, and now they can because they’re using a product you worked on.”

Steven Thomas Kent is a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. You can reach him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at [email protected] for story tips and feedback. His stories are made possible by support from Emerge West Michigan.

Photography by Adam Bird

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