Whether it’s a symptom of degenerative disc disease, peripheral neuropathy, fibromyalgia, or another condition entirely, chronic pain is ultimately experienced in your brain. Vast networks of neurons (nerve cells) in your brain receive pain signals from your spinal cord and pass them into your conscious awareness.
Conventional pain management techniques aim to ease chronic discomfort by addressing the underlying cause directly — or by blocking the transmission of pain signals to your brain. While this bottom-up approach often works well for joint pain, musculoskeletal injuries, and many other pain conditions, it doesn’t always deliver effective relief for certain pain types.
When standard interventions don’t work well enough, our skilled team at Advanced Spine and Pain Clinics in Minneapolis, Minnesota, may recommend taking a top-down approach instead. Here, we explain how transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy rewires your brain to suppress persistent pain signals, so you can finally attain lasting relief.
TMS is a noninvasive, deep brain stimulation treatment that uses targeted magnetic energy to gently stimulate the area of your brain that’s inundated by chronic pain signals. By stimulating the specific cerebral region that’s overwhelmed by neural pain activity, TMS therapy helps recalibrate problematic brainwave activity and foster your brain’s natural healing processes.
Although the concept behind modern-day TMS therapy emerged in the late 19th century, the first contemporary TMS device wasn’t created until 1985. Medical researchers began studying the device soon after its invention, conducting dozens of clinical trials to evaluate its ability to affect brain activity and alleviate the symptoms of depression.
Following dozens of clinical trials, meta-analyses, and randomized studies, the FDA approved TMS therapy as an effective treatment for clinical depression in 2008. Five years later, it was approved for use in treating chronic migraine pain; in 2018, it was FDA-approved as a viable solution for treatment-resistant OCD.
Current research shows that TMS therapy may also be a safe and effective approach for treatment-resistant chronic pain conditions like peripheral neuropathy, fibromyalgia, and complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).
During a TMS session, we place an electromagnetic coil over a specific area of your head. This specialized coil produces rhythmic, low-magnitude magnetic pulses that pass painlessly through your scalp and into your brain, where they gently stimulate the neurons that have been either inactivated or overwhelmed by chronic pain signals.
Every physical perception — including chronic pain — is controlled by clear, coordinated, and continuous communication between your brain cells (neurons). As neural cells pass information to one another, they generate synchronized electrical pulses called brain waves. Your brainwave patterns form your entire spectrum of consciousness.
To understand how different brain waves affect your pain response, it’s helpful to think of them as essential “instruments” in your brain activity “orchestra.” Low-frequency brain waves are like a slow, consistent beat that keeps time, while light and flexible mid-to-high-frequency patterns power the melody. When your brain waves are balanced and in sync, they link together to form a harmonic symphony of brain activity.
When your brain activity is out of sync or off balance, it can create a harmonic dissonance across your brainwave patterns that makes them less clear, controlled, and efficient. Chronic pain may trigger over-arousal (overwhelmed neurons) in certain areas of the brain, along with under-arousal (inactive neurons) in other areas.
By recalibrating the neural activity that drives the pain-response structures of your brain, TMS therapy helps balance brain activity and restore normal brainwave patterns. As your brain activity normalizes over the course of your treatment plan, your chronic pain symptoms should improve significantly.
TMS is a gentle, noninvasive treatment that doesn’t require anesthesia or any other kind of desensitizing medication. You sit comfortably in a reclining chair during each session, which typically lasts for about 40 minutes from start to finish.
Designed to make gradual, targeted brainwave changes through a series of treatment sessions, your TMS plan is tailored to your specific needs. Most people have 3-5 TMS therapy sessions a week for 4-6 weeks.