St. Jude Medical will test a new neurostim approach for chronic pain

St. Jude Medical ($STJ) is in the enviable position of being one of the top medical device companies focused on developing neurostimulation devices to treat chronic pain and other conditions. Seeking to remain ahead of the pack, the Minnesota company has launched a clinical trial of a next-generation device that ups the ante for rivals.

Plans call for enrolling as many as 442 patients at up to 50 sites in the U.S. to test St. Jude's Prodigy neurostimulator as a treatment for chronic pain. Executives bill the device as the first spinal cord stimulator of its kind that uses burst stimulation instead of the usual tonic stimulation. The trial will explore whether burst stimulation is more effective than the current standard.

Prodigy would be a major advance in a neurostimulation technology environment that hasn't changed much in 40 years. As the company explains, a neurostimulation implant typically delivers low levels of electricity through thin wires laid along the spinal cord to block or deaden pain signal transmissions to the brain. But a traditional spinal cord stimulation system leaves patients with a tingling sensation that St. Jude says burst stimulation may be able to reduce or even eliminate.

What's more, St. Jude argues, burst stimulation may be a more effective option, hence Prodigy's development and planned trial.

There's plenty to gain. About 100 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain and the condition costs tens of billions of dollars in terms of medical bills and lost productivity, according to statistics cited by St. Jude.

Beyond treating pain, neurostimulation is considered a potentially viable treatment for epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and other conditions. Active competitors in the space include Medtronic ($MDT), Boston Scientific ($BSX), Cyberonics, NeuroPace and others.

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