Electric pulse therapy lessens pain of rheumatoid arthritis, study shows

Rheumatoid arthritis occurs because of inflammation which causes deformity and disability at the joints
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs because of inflammation which causes deformity and disability at the joints

Rheumatoid arthritis sufferers could experience significantly less pain by electrical stimulation of a key nerve that runs from the brain.

More than 400,000 people in Britain suffer from rheumatoid arthritis which occurs when inflammation builds up in the joints causing swelling, deformity and preventing normal movement.

One in 10 people experience pain so bad that they consider suicide, but there is currently no cure for the condition and many people do not respond to drugs.

The new therapy, tested by scientists at the European League Against Rheumatism (Eular), based in Zurich, instead targets the vagus nerve, the longest and most complex nerve which comes from the brain.

The name 'vagus' comes from the Latin word for 'wandering’, because the nerve wanders from the brain and into the organs of the neck, chest and abdomen.

Recent research has shown that a circuit in the brain that controls inflammation can be dialed down by the vagus nerve, specifically stopping an inflammatory molecule linked to arthritis.

In the new pilot study, 14 people had a tiny electrode implanted into the brains. One third were given electrical impulses once a day, another third four times a day, and the last group kept as a placebo.

At the end of the study, the patients who received once-daily stimulation were shown to have a better response than those on four-times-daily stimulation seeing measurable improvements, and a 30 per cent drop inflammatory molecules responsible for the disease.

“This is a really exciting development. For many patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, current treatments don't work, or aren't tolerated,” said Professor Thomas Dörner, Chairperson of the Scientific Programme Committee, at Eular.

“These results open the door to a novel approach to treating not only rheumatoid arthritis, but other chronic inflammatory diseases. This is certainly an area for further study.”

The NHS recently gave the green light for a hand-held device to stimulate their vagus nerve for people suffering from cluster headaches.

The research was presented at the Annual European Congress of Rheumatology in Madrid.