A local massage therapist and physical therapist has added a piece of high-tech electronics to the pain-control options she offers patients.
Laura Brown's plans for the rollout were pushed back by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the state of New York to shut down close-contact businesses such as massage therapy. But she reopened in June, and has treated about 20 people with the device so far at Capital Region Calmare, in the same Erie Boulevard office where she has run Urban Massage Elite.
Calmare is the trade name for what is also known as scrambler therapy, which uses electrical impulses on nerve fibers to replace pain signals sent to the brain with non-pain signals. In effect, it scrambles pain signals.
It is not brand new, but neither is it widely used or well-known. The high cost of treatments and the fact that they aren't covered by health insurance has held Calmare back, Brown said.
Many of the people she has treated see this therapy as a last resort — the drugs or surgery or physical therapy they've had or been offered either don't work or are unacceptable.
"Because it's new, nobody knows what it is," she said. "By the time they get to me, usually they've seen it all, heard it all, done it all, swallowed it all, been carved up by a couple of people."
A key difference is that she's not fixing the source of the pain, she's treating the sensation of neurological pain through nerve fibers. Also, Calmare doesn't work for muscle and joint pain.
Failure doesn't carry with it the risks of ineffective drug therapy or surgery. The worst thing that can happen is nothing, Brown said.
Treatments take an hour and run $250 each, or less if purchased several at a time, and multiple treatments are usually required for maximum relief. However, the first treatment is a sure indicator of whether Calmare will help a particular patient — those who will benefit will see some relief immediately.
Brown said about 80 percent of those she has treated have experienced partial or full pain relief.
In simple terms, Calmare teaches the brain through repeated treatment to not feel the pain impulses from the chronically affected region of the body, Brown said. It's a gradual process, with the results lasting longer with each successive application. The third, fourth or fifth treatment might be enough to provide months of relief, followed by a gradual return of pain that can be addressed with an additional treatment.
Brown, a Malone-area native and now Scotia resident, has been a physical therapist since 1996 and a licensed massage therapist since 2000. She incorporates both techniques into her work.
"I consider myself a pain eraser," she said, using a hybrid of massage and physical therapy. Calmare adds another tool to accomplish her work.
She researched it for about three years before making the commitment of time and money to buy a machine and get trained to use it.
One of the people Brown has treated is Heimdall Imbert of Latham. He recently bent over to pick up a light object and collapsed with a bolt of pain up his back. A visit to urgent care yielded painkillers and muscle relaxants; a followup visit yielded stronger drugs and a suggestion for surgery. The drugs didn't work and he doesn't want the surgery. An X-ray revealed two tightly spaced discs in his spine, but provided no answer on cause or effect.
Brown, who's a friend on social media, saw his updates and suggested Imbert come in.
He felt the sweeping pain relief characteristic of that first treatment, enough so that afterward he decided to walk all the way across downtown Schenectady, gradually bringing the pain back a couple of hours later. Three more treatments have made a much greater difference, each with pain relief lasting longer than the previous treatment. He hasn't felt back pain at all since the fourth treatment.
"Thinking back to what life was like for that week or two vs. what it's like now, it's just like night and day," he said.
A functional, pain-free back is one of those things you take for granted, Imbert said. He's been stretching in a pool and reminding himself to not overextend himself as he moves, but he's able to run again.
Another patient is Kendra McHale of Clifton Park, who met Brown through a business networking group and has been receiving messages from her for a year. McHale got her first Calmare treatment Thursday.
She has a pinched nerve in her hip, and had received three unattractive options from her doctors: surgery, cortisone shots or live with it.
McHale had been living with it for about two years, with shooting pains and numbness that grew from a tiny patch of skin to her entire upper leg.
"I'm living with it, until yesterday," she said Friday. "I had my first session with Laura and went a full 24 hours without any pain or numbness in my right thigh."
The pain was back a little bit Friday, as Brown predicted it would be.
The high-impact athletics of her college years are long-gone but McHale still loves the spinning bike, and spinning has been impossible lately. "What I have found that's helpful is yoga, so I do yoga every single day to try to help any of that pain as much as possible."
The new treatment has been a big boost for her outlook, she said, and she's optimistic about further improvements.
The Calmare treatment is FDA-approved but not covered by most insurers. It is not a widely known or used therapy, but has been making some inroads. Calmare Therapeutics Inc., earlier this year announced a $2.5 million federal contract to supply its devices to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Also, Calmare may be confused with transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) or other devices in the electrical stimulation (e-stim) category. They operate on different principles to provide short-term relief rather than longer-term pain elimination, Brown explained.