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Stimulating the brain without surgery in the management of chronic pain

O'Connell NE, Wand BM, Marston L, Spencer S, DeSouza LH
Published Online: 
11 April 2014

Various devices are available that can electrically stimulate the brain without the need for surgery or any invasive treatment in order to manage chronic pain. There are four main treatment types: repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) in which the brain is stimulated by a coil applied to the scalp, cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES) in which electrodes are clipped to the ears or applied to the scalp, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and reduced impedance non-invasive cortical electrostimulation (RINCE) in which electrodes are applied to the scalp. These have been used to try to reduce pain by aiming to alter the activity of the brain, but the efficacy of these treatments is uncertain.

This review update included 56 studies: 30 of rTMS, 11 of CES, 14 of tDCS and one of RINCE. We judged only three studies as having a low risk of bias. Low or very low-quality evidence suggests that low-frequency rTMS and rTMS applied to pre-frontal areas of the brain are not effective but that a single dose of high-frequency stimulation of the motor cortex area of the brain provides short-term pain relief. This effect appears to be small and may be exaggerated by a number of sources of bias. Studies that gave a course of multiple treatments of rTMS produced conflicting results with no overall effect seen when we pooled the results of these studies. Most studies of rTMS are small and there is substantial variation between studies in terms of the treatment methods used. Low-quality evidence does not suggest that CES or tDCS are effective treatments for chronic pain. A single small study of RINCE provided very low-quality evidence of a short-term effect on pain. For all forms of stimulation the evidence is not conclusive and uncertainty remains.

The reporting of side effects varied across the studies. Of the studies that clearly reported side effects, short-lived and minor side effects such as headache, nausea and skin irritation were usually reported both after real and sham stimulation. There were two reports of seizure following real rTMS.

While the broad conclusions for rTMS and CES have not changed substantially, the addition of this new evidence and the application of the GRADE system has modified some of our interpretation. Previous readers should re-read this update.

More studies of rigorous design and adequate size are required to evaluate accurately all forms of non-invasive brain stimulation for the treatment of chronic pain.

This record should be cited as: 
O'Connell NE, Wand BM, Marston L, Spencer S, DeSouza LH. Non-invasive brain stimulation techniques for chronic pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD008208. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008208.pub3
Assessed as up to date: 
24 July 2013