Heads up to everyone, this is not gonna be design related. It’s gonna be chronic illness and pain related.
When I first saw a TV ad for Quell sometime last year, I just barely refrained from stuffing an envelope with cash to send them. Between 15 or so years of Lyme disease and this current SI joint problem, I’ve spent a whole lot of time and effort on pain management tactics. They’ve mostly boiled down to taking an opioid painkiller or just being in a lot of pain and trying to carry on about my life anyway.
Now I’m not opposed to prescription painkillers as a rule or anything. There’s a lot of judgey attitudes around folks taking all sorts of medications that I’m not looking to add to. But I’ve inherited my mother’s low tolerance for pain medication, and despite being on the second lowest step in the opioid pain relief tree, it still makes me sleepy. I’ve often been in a position where I have to choose between being able to work or getting relief from pain. For years, I’ve usually opted for being able to work, which means I’ve been in pain, a lot.
So this wearable, drug free pain relief idea was really appealing to me. Also, from a professional standpoint, I’m super interested in intersections of the tech and design industry (where I work) and the healthcare industry (where I live). I was a little skeptical of Quell being helpful to me, as I’ve seen it compared to a TENS unit, and those haven’t done much for my pain (I’ve tried both the heavy duty PT office version, and those little ones that Shaq advertises.) Things like facet joint injections, nerve blocks, and radiofrequency ablation have decreased my pain completely, but have lasted anywhere from one week to two months, so they’re not viable long term options. But Quell offers a 60 day money back guarantee, so if I didn’t get anything out of it, I could always return it.
So I read ALL the reviews.
I noticed that generally, reviewers don’t talk much about the type of pain that they’re having, possibly because it’s a giant bummer to talk about. Quell is broadly recommended for all kinds of chronic pain, but I really wanted to see what people were putting it up against. So in case anyone else is looking for that kind of information, here’s my really specific review of Quell.
The TL;DR is that if you’re at all on the fence about trying it, you should absolutely get one.
As mentioned, I had a really long bout with Lyme disease. Thankfully I’ve been off of any treatment for it since fall of 2014, but I do still have a little bit of lingering arthritisy pain that kicks up around this time of year (I’ve read that increased pain when the weather’s bad is an old wives tale, but I’m with the old wives on this one.) It’s minor, and not terribly disruptive to my day at this point.
I also have an unstable sacroiliac joint, as of February 2015ish (which was my second trimester of pregnancy, which is what caused the joint to go wonky on me.) Your SI joint is the one that connects your pelvis to your spine, and it’s supposed to just barely move (around 4mm). Mine moves way too much, which irritates the nerves there, and the nerves there irritate me.
It’s extraordinarily painful, and affects everything about my day. Far too much of my decision making process is based on how much pain various options will cost me. It’s painful to walk, to pick up my kid, and to put on pants. Pants. Hurt. I’ve always stopped short of calling is disabling, because I am still able to walk (and to work). But if I’m going with the official definition of “a condition that substantially limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities,” then yes, it’s disabling.
Pain can be a difficult thing to quantify, and I’ve seen a number of attempts to update the old sad face scale that hospitals typically use. I’m a fan of the ones that provide some context as to how pain is affecting your day to day living, so I made a scale for myself based on that. I do a scale of 0-4, that I track through Symple (which I also did a write up about, because it’s hands down the best symptom tracker I’ve used.)
0 – Literally no pain.
1 – Noticeable pain, but not bothersome, sporadic.
2 – Bothersome, affecting my gait, and generally constant.
3 – Painful. If I feel a need to take a painkiller (or wish I could), it’s a 3.
4 – Basically bedbound. Pain severely affects my day.
After my RFA, my monthly average was 0.69.
When it wore off, I was back up to a monthly average of 3.11. That’s where I’ve been since last fall.
The first day, I set it up around 4pm, and I wore it the rest of the day, switching it to the other leg when the alarm goes off to give your skin a break. After the first round of treatment, I did notice that it kind of took the edge off of my pain, but it wasn’t anything significant. And it seemed to come back up in between sessions. I’d read, of course, that it sometimes takes a bit of time to really get the full effect from the therapy. I wore it to bed that night, and found that having it come on intermittently didn’t wake me up (I used the default night time setting, it has a few different options for bedtime).
The next day, I was convinced that Quell is some kind of voodoo magic. I didn’t wake up with zero pain, but I woke up with very little pain. I didn’t have to limp. We went to a movie, which usually involves me shifting into increasingly oddball positions, because sitting for long periods is awful for SI pain. No problems there. We walked over to a restaurant, we hung out with friends, and then I came home and cleaned out a closet. Any one of those things would have usually caused me to be at least very uncomfortable, and more often dragging a leg when I walked around the house. I wore it while sleeping, doing yoga, and working. I’m a photographer, so my work involves a lot of time on my feet and hauling gear, and usually a shoot requires a day or two of couch time to recover. I tested it out for a portrait shoot and for a wedding, and while both still involved some recovery time, I was significantly better off with the Quell than without.
So far, I haven’t found it uncomfortable to wear, and I’ve had it on basically around the clock. It’s not what I’d describe as comfortable either, but for a TENS unit and a bunch of electrodes strapped to my leg, it’s not bad. If you’re a fan of skinny jeans, it is going to show. It's not something I would bother with if I only had a little bit of pain that was kind of a bother sometimes. But I let a doctor stick like five needles into my spine to try to control my pain, so compared to that, what's a weird little doodad that I wear on my leg all day?
It has some neat features, one lets you set certain times of day where you’re more sensitive to pain, and it will drop the intensity for your therapy then. It has a pedometer built in so that you can see how much you're moving around. You can also adjust the frequency of therapy, although I’ve mostly had it on the default “one hour one, one hour off.” I had a bit of trouble with the electrodes snapping off, generally when I bent down to do something, but after fiddling around with the placement some, I think I’ve found a good spot for it.
The gel has gotten a little wobbly around the edges already, and I’d read a number of complaints that while they recommend you change electrodes every two weeks, they just barely make it that long. So far I’ve just been kind of careful in removing and reapplying them, and it hasn’t been much of a problem. But this is from a girl that drove a car whose door you had to roll the window down and close from the outside for a year, so I’m a “if it almost works, it works” sort. Your mileage may vary.
Most days, I have just enough pain in my back that I’m aware of it. It’s definitely not bothersome. It reminds me of how I felt after getting joint injections, I keep forgetting that I don’t have to make all of these modifications that I’ve gotten so used to – for getting out of the car, for picking up my kid, for avoiding taking the stairs in our house more than I absolutely have to. The day after a portrait shoot, I definitely had a bit of the sharp pain I get from the SI joint, but none of the muscle pain I’m used to from overcompensating for it all day long. The day after a wedding was a bit worse, but still better than my usual post-wedding.
I’ve been using the app that comes along with it to do most everything. It’s easy to bump the intensity up or down, it keeps track of when I’m supposed to change the electrodes for me. Overall, it’s a nice app and it’s easy to use, but some functions are kind of buried in weird places (for example, the ‘lights out’ mode to set that you’re asleep or awake is under the settings menu.) I’m using Symple for my pain tracking, but it does give you an in-app system to rate your pain, how much your pain interfered with your sleep, how much your pain interfered with your activity levels, and how much it’s interfered with your mood (although I sometimes forget to set it, because it doesn’t have a reminder).
The first day, I’d marked:
Pain - 7
Sleep interference - 8
Activity interference - 10
Mood interference - 8
After just ofver 30 hours of wearing the Quell, I'd marked:
Pain - 3
Sleep interference - 0
Activity interference - 0
Mood interference - 0
My pain didn’t affect my activity level, at all, all day. I didn’t worry about how far away we parked from something, about having to get out of the car multiple times, I stopped working on that closet project when I wanted to, and not when I had to. I did whatever I wanted, and that is absolutely worth $250 to me. I went from my pain affecting every single thing I do, to not even considering it in just over a day.
Now, since then I’ve had a few ones and twos. But my scale is now 0-2, instead of 8-10, so calling it life changing isn’t being at all hyperbolic. My worse days now are about on par with where my good days were before. I honestly can’t believe how well this thing works.
Where I started:
Activity interference: 9
After a week:
Activity interference: 1
After a month:
Activity interference: 1
We're currently appealing our insurance company to get a surgical option covered, to fuse my joint. It's been very effective for pain relief, so I'm hopeful that if we do manage to get that covered, I won't need to use the Quell anymore. But I have no idea how long that will take, or if they'll cover it at all. In the meantime, I'm happy to have this thing.
If you have any questions at all that I can help with, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch on twitter.