PRODUCTS & INNOVATION
Chronic pain management with DRG stimulation helped Ryan Le. Now he wants to help others like him.
Nov 7 2019
Seven years ago, it seemed like nothing could stand in Ryan Le's way.
The 20-year-old had been living life just as he'd planned. He was a college sophomore in Austin, Texas, studying engineering.
But after the motorcycle accident, everything changed. He had significant trauma which led to repeated surgeries on his groin region.
After one procedure, Le woke up to a new normal. The injuries and testicular surgery left him in debilitating chronic pain, desperately searching for relief. That pain would continue for several years despite multiple surgeries, medications, procedures and devices. Oxycontin failed. Fentanyl patches did, too. Injections, nerve ablation and a peripheral nerve stimulator followed — nothing seemed to work.
A Second Chance with DRG
Le left school and moved back home near Houston, his future uncertain and indefinitely on hold. His physician suggested they try something new: dorsal root ganglion (DRG) stimulation. The system involves sending electrical pulses to an implanted stimulator that helps disrupt pain signals.
"The therapy is ideal for people like Ryan, meaning those who have chronic pain lasting longer than six months either due to trauma or nerve damage," said Dr. Allen W. Burton, Le's then-physician and now Abbott's medical director of neuromodulation. "The pain that Ryan was suffering from is called causalgia, which was related to the nerve injury in his groin."
The only hiccup? The therapy hadn't yet cleared FDA approval and Le was too young for the clinical trial. So his doctors had to implant a pain pump in the meantime. The pump gave him marginal relief. But the idea of spending the rest of his life dependent on medication being pumped into his body didn't sit well.
"I didn't want to be on opiates for the rest of my life," said Le, now 27. "I just knew it wasn't the way to go."
The waiting paid off in September 2017. Le finally had his stimulator implanted for the DRG therapy. His recovery went so well that he went back to school that next week.
Taking pre-medical courses to apply to medical school, his chronic pain journey inspired him to change his career path.
"They implanted it and I was back in class right away," Le said. "The incision was healing but as far as the pain, the surgery went off pretty well."
Stimulation: When — And Where — It's Needed
Gradually, Le's doctors began reducing his pain pump dosage and adjusting treatment from Le's DRG until 2018 when the pain pump was removed entirely.
"Most patients getting a DRG stimulator won't have an implanted pain pump, but Ryan's case was special," Burton said. "The care team chose to slowly wean him off the pain pump after his stimulator was implanted and Ryan's pain pump was removed successfully."
Doctors adjusted the stimulation settings to match Le's needs. If he ever needs a dose alteration, he can change the voltage with a handheld controller. He has found that he rarely needs to do that.
"The iPod controller goes everywhere I go, for sure," Le said. "It's no hindrance on anything I do. I live pretty close to class, so I don't have to have the controlled with me 24/7, but it's something I always keep close. Like, if I go on vacation, I'm definitely packing it."
Indeed, on vacation not long ago, his scuba diving trip went off without a hitch.
"I was a little worried about going, but they assured me that it wouldn't be a problem," Le said. "It's all internal. The electricity is inside the body so it wasn't an issue. I left the controller in the car and it was totally fine."
Making His Comeback, Pain-Free
After everything he's been through, Ryan was inspired to pursue a career in medicine. He recently started medical school in San Antonio.
"I moved into my apartment here and that was a whole-day effort that I couldn't have done before," he said. "I used to be able to exert myself for one, maybe two hours and then I'd have to rest."
Now in his first year of medical school, Le already knows he wants to pursue chronic pain management in the future, so that he can someday help others like him.
"I want to do interventional pain management," he said. "Neurostimulation is definitely on the rise and, especially with the opiate crisis in this country, the field is looking to treat pain in different ways. I'd love to get involved in gene therapy research, too."
As innovations in the field continue, more people are sure to see their lives changed by new treatments, as Le's was.
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