If there’s one industry where the landscape is ever changing – it’s health care, from billing and insurance updates to new medications, treatments and wellness fads.
Likewise, Chattanooga entrepreneurs are always up to something new.
They continually launch novel products and solutions that make life better. Two local companies put that entrepreneurial ‘make things better’ mindset to work for chronic pain sufferers.
Whether it’s lingering discomfort from an injury, nerve pain, backaches or something more severe, most adults deal with pain at some point, and it can majorly impact quality of life and work productivity.
The American Chiropractic Association says back pain is the most common reason for workers’ compensation claims, affecting professionals ranging from office workers to warehouse employees to firefighters.
One approach to back pain relief? Hollywog’s WiTouch Pro wearable Bluetooth device. Gel pads adhere it to the skin on the back, where it’s hidden by clothing. The wearer turns the device on and off and adjusts the settings, including 15 intensities, via a smartphone app.
I don’t experience back pain, but Hollywog founder Chuck Thomas still had me try the WiTouch Pro unit. At level one, I only felt a subtle, distracting massage-like feeling. To mimic how the device eases pain, Thomas had me increase the intensity a couple notches to a level I found intense.
“You feel this distracting sensation at level one. Bear with me and take it to level three for maybe 20 seconds. That's a lot for you, and your body's reacting to it. Now go back to level two and you might still feel it, but go to level one and you feel almost nothing. Your body is already starting to block out what it was sensing.”
Thomas’ description of what I would feel is completely accurate.
“This device blocks pain signals from reaching the brain,” he says. “It doesn’t cure the root of the problem, but for 75% of back issues, pain can go away in six to eight weeks on its own. But during that six to eight weeks, how are you managing pain? The WiTouch Pro is perfect for those acute pain problem times.”
“If you’re a chronic sufferer, you’re always looking for options. People find us and like that we’re drug-free, over the counter, affordable … for managing pain, this is a really safe $80 to spend.”
Despite a money-back guarantee, Thomas reports a .02% return rate for the WiTouch Pro.
The device uses TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) to relieve back pain. TENS is non-invasive, drug-free and controls pain by transmitting electrical stimulation to the body’s nerve and muscle fibers through the skin. WiTouch Pro‘s patented waveform incorporates two clinical theories behind TENS: gate control theory, that non-painful sensations prevent painful sensations from reaching the central nervous system, and opiate release theory, that increasing the body’s release of endorphins reduces sensitivity to pain.
“Chiropractors and physical therapists use TENS technology through an electrotherapy device with wires and electrodes for short treatments. The power in our device is the same, but you're able to use it whenever you want and while you go about your day,” Thomas says.
Prior to founding Hollywog, Thomas led sales and marketing for a global medical device company, where he learned the landscape of the industry and decided existing TENS devices needed innovation.
“I wanted to do something different with this. I wanted to take the wires away, but I still wanted the best unit,” he says. “The basic TENS principle is the same, but our devices are more powerful and user-friendly.”
Thomas created the first wearable device made for the back, also the only TENS unit made in the U.S. One feature that sets the WiTouch Pro apart is that the coverage area on the skin is larger than the electrodes typical of TENS devices, which push power through such a small area they can cause burns.
Thomas introduced the first version of his product in 2012. In 2017, he began selling under a major brand name in big box stores. That was a “tremendous” start, he says, but the Hollywog team released the second generation last year under the WiTouch Pro brand, and now sells exclusively through its website or Amazon. He says that process was “pressing restart on the business,” and the catalyst for Hollywog’s transition to the INCubator in the Hamilton County Business Development Center.
Hollywog assembles all devices in the INCubator, and proudly promotes that its products are made in the U.S. and in Chattanooga. Hollywog’s WiTouch Pro is already FDA-cleared as a Class II medical device for managing back pain and pain associated with arthritis.
Hollywog is part of a double blind chronic pain study with Cedar Sinai Medical Center, Samsung and Traveler's Insurance. Study results should publish by early summer.
Scenic City Neurotherapy’s ketamine infusions provide another option for chronic pain sufferers. Across the country, ketamine clinics are growing alongside research for the drug’s impact on chronic pain and mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
Ketamine is an FDA-approved anesthetic that’s been in use for years, including as part of most surgeries today. Charles Miller, CEO and treatment provider at Scenic City Neurotherapy and Ketamine Clinic, says ketamine stimulates the body's natural processes to do what it's naturally built to − correct problems.
“After ketamine therapy, the brain and body take over and eventually you don't need us,” he says.
Miller learned about pain management and non-opioid options as part of studying anesthesiology at the Middle Tennessee School of Anesthesia. He also saw a loved one go from bedridden due to pain, to getting her life back by managing that pain without opioids. The two experiences sparked Miller’s interest in providing an alternative for people struggling with chronic pain. After extensive experience as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthesiologist working with local hospitals, he founded Scenic City Neurotherapy last year.
“I looked at what we were doing in surgery and modified it for an outpatient setting. Pre-opioid boom, this was a common infusion to manage chronic pain. But we didn't have that many people back then,” Miller says. “Many people in pain management today hurt not just from actual pain but from hypersensitivity related to opioids. Our treatment is designed to get rid of that so you can find your pain baseline.”
Miller says opioids are effective for short-term relief from surgical pain as they activate receptors that block pain signals from the brain. But it’s important to rapidly phase them out or pain levels can increase when our bodies increase opioid receptors and modify pain pathways as a defense mechanism for severe pain.
For people who have taken opioids long-term, Miller notes that ketamine can mostly negate withdrawal effects.
“Only about 30% of people get any form of euphoria from opioids,” Miller says. “For the rest, they're a necessary evil. And they think it’s their only option. We provide an alternative.”
Like opioids, ketamine faces a stigma related to drug abuse. It made headlines as a street drug in the late 90s and early 2000s. Miller says his patients’ infusions are at most one-tenth of what people used recreationally, and ketamine is classified as a Schedule III non-narcotic, meaning it has low to moderate potential for dependence. (Schedule I includes drugs like LSD; Schedule II includes drugs like oxycodone.)
“Misinformation or lack of information is our biggest struggle,” Miller says. “Ketamine is easily controlled and when giving as an infusion, while I’ve never seen a bad reaction, I can stop at any point. Ketamine often gets lumped in with other hallucinatory drugs, but it's sensational to say that it’s a party drug. It's an anesthetic that has been abused.”
Scenic City Neurotherapy has treated about 100 patients in less than a year of operations, with about a 60%/40% split between treatment that’s mental health oriented vs. pain management. All patients receive six customized intravenous infusions over two weeks and return as needed for boosters.
Patients are awake and monitored during each infusion, which takes about 2.5 hours for pain management. Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic − Miller compares the feeling during infusion as similar to nitrous oxide at the dentist.
“Once the infusion begins, any pain from head to toe typically disappears,” Miller says. “After it stops, the head clears and often we've stopped all the pain in the body except for the real trouble spot.”
Miller refers out to other providers for follow-up services like physical therapy or counseling depending on what issues patients are treating, and plans to hire for these wraparound services soon, building out to a full service model that also better supports opioid withdrawal.
This therapy is an approved medical expense, and Scenic City Neurotherapy accepts FSA and HSA payments. While ketamine is relatively new in the pain management space, many insurances will cover it for this purpose, and Miller believes that will become more common.
“Every time I go to a networking event, it ends up being a consult,” he says. “And I say, ‘let's talk about it.’ Everybody knows somebody who suffers, and I love being a part of improving the health of our city.”
Find more information about Hollywog at hollywog.com.
Find more information about Scenic City Neurotherapy at sceniccityneurotherapy.com.