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Quelling My Pain

Quelling My Pain

Could a new medical device put an end to an age-old problem?

Nearly 50 percent of Americans cope with chronic pain, which is a condition that persists for a long period, may have indefinable causes, and doesn’t respond well to traditional treatments. Living with HIV and its complications can exacerbate or even lead to chronic pain conditions. I’ve lived with chronic pain  for decades now and have tried strategies including acupuncture, physical therapy, narcotics, energy work, seeing a shrink, and using transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS. TENS involves a little machine that sends stimulating pulses along your nerves through electrodes to prevent pain signals from reaching your brain, and it does so while increasing your endorphins. 

I have had a TENS unit for about 10 years now as part of my regular pain treatment toolkit, but it has its downsides, which is why I jumped at the chance to try a device called the Quell. The Quell uses transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation to provide relief from chronic pain. But instead of working only on localized pain where the electrodes are attached, the Quell treats your whole body by suppressing the sensation of pain. Using patented technology, the Quell is the only device of its kind approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and it’s been proven effective in treating painful diabetic neuropathy and other neuropathic pain like sciatica, fibromyalgia, and osteoarthritis, among other conditions. 

More like a FitBit than a TENS unit, the Quell has no wires. It is a sleek, lightweight, and wearable device perfect for the iPhone generation. You wear the device around your calf under your clothing. I managed to wear skinny jeans, but a word from the wise: Avoid wearing anything too tight or it becomes more difficult to manage. 

Everyone has a different tolerance for the pulsating nerve stimulation, so personal calibration is a must. Although the calibration instructions are simple (push the one button this many times), it still took me a little while to find my personal setting sweet spot. I also found that I couldn’t tolerate wearing the device directly on the leg where I have nerve pain and numbness; that could be different for other users. 



The electrode of the Quell is a long strip that has four sticky gel pads — quite different from the usual electrodes of TENS. These Quell pads stick to everything, including leg hair and household lint, and I learned the hard way that touching them directly with your fingertips can mess them up. In fact, the gummy gel pads are central to my few complaints about the Quell. According to the manual, each electrode strip should last you about two weeks. You can take the electrodes off between each hour-long treatment, or you can wear the Quell day or night and go about your normal activities. I wore it both at the office and while doing some yard work. I was wearing shorts (I don’t recommend it with the Quell), and I found that the gel pads had attracted stuff as though they were flypaper. Trying to pull out little stems and seeds, I ended up completely destroying one electrode. To reach the two-week point requires more careful management and perhaps not wearing the Quell during physically strenuous activity (or, um, gardening).

To remain wireless, the Quell device snaps directly into the electrode strip. They need to be snapped together before being wrapped around your calf. If they come unsnapped (which has happened for me while sleeping, pulling pants on or off, or when my leg bumps into something), it is nearly impossible to snap them back together without completely removing the electrode strip from your leg.

Quell users can connect their smartphone with the device through an app that allows you to track the pain therapy, monitor sleep activity, check on battery life, and modify the therapy sessions at night. The app is useful, but it’s not quite what we’ve come to expect with ubiquitous activity trackers. In other words, the Quell is not an activity tracker and will not fill in for one. 

While I’ve just mentioned a number of problems I’ve had with the Quell, I will not be giving up this device any time soon. These minor irritations don’t detract from the fact that the Quell is working for me. When I use it, my muscles don’t spasm or clench, and when I took a few days off while I was traveling, it became very apparent that it had been reducing my pain as well. Both my pain management doctor and my physical therapist approved wholeheartedly.

The Quell is marketed as chronic pain treatment, and that’s what it has successfully provided me. It hasn’t eliminated all my pain, but it never claimed it would. It helps me manage it. While 67 percent of Quell users reported a reduction in the use of pain medication, it does not work for everyone. Perhaps aware of that fact, the company offers a 60-day return policy. But if you are like me, it won’t take you two months to fall in love. 

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Jacob Anderson-Minshall