Thursday, August 2, 2012

Eliminating Phantom Limb Pain for People with Limb Loss

By Guest Blogger Katherine Bomkamp, CEO/President, Katherine Bomkamp International

My father recently retired after a 20 year career in the U.S. Air Force. My family lived a nomadic life, moving constantly from one military base to another. Seven states, 10 schools (K-12th grade), and 20 years later, I realize how truly lucky I was to be raised in the military community. Growing up, my parents instilled values in us that are personified by the military – one of the most important being to do everything in your power to help those around you. At 16 years old, I identified a problem experienced by many of our wounded Veterans, and I decided to do something about it.

With my father’s most recent duty station being the Pentagon, the turmoil in the Middle East was a very visible part of my daily life. On occasion, I would go with my dad to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and I will never forget my time there. I would see young people with amputated limbs who had returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with their lives completely changed. Many of these men and women were not much older than me. I started researching amputations and came across phantom limb pain, or pain in a non-existent limb, which I had recently heard about in the news. Phantom pain effects 80 percent of the world’s 10 million amputees, and ranges from merely annoying to completely debilitating. Every person experiences the pain differently, and some common manifestations of the pain are cramping, burning, itching and tingling sensations.

I found that there was no medication approved on the market for phantom pain, and that most amputees are commonly prescribed antipsychotics and barbiturates, drugs that are both expensive and have a high potential addiction rate. After a challenge from my 10th grade chemistry teacher to think creatively to solve a problem in our community, at 16 years old, I decided to see what I could do to make this pain one less obstacle in our wounded Veterans’ rehabilitative process.

I came across the concept of thermal biofeedback, very concentrated and controlled heat, which had been used by researchers in Europe to completely cure a man’s phantom pain by delivering heat through electrodes placed on his skin. The heat stimulates the severed nerve endings in the residual limb, and forces the brain to focus on the heat rather than to continue to send signals and commands down to a limb that is no longer there, signals that are getting blocked in the nerve endings.

Keeping our active Veterans in mind, I decided to incorporate this concentrated heat into the prosthetic socket (where the residual limb fits into the prosthetic device) and make this therapy mobile. I embedded heating elements between a double walled prosthetic socket, which heats up and stimulates the severed nerve endings. After conversations with people with amputated limbs, a reoccurring theme seemed to be a feeling of lost control over their situation, so I decided to make the socket activated by remote control, with different heat settings so the person can choose their own heat setting based on the amount of pain they are experiencing. This gives the user control over their own pain management and allows them access to relief at anytime throughout their day.

I call my device the Pain Free Socket (PFS). In five years, I’ve taken the PFS through three stages of prototyping, filed two patents and created a company around the idea of building products to make daily life more comfortable for people living with disabilities. The PFS is currently being further commercialized, and funding will hopefully be secured soon to start proof of concept testing. I’m contacted daily by amputees wanting to be a part of testing as well as people who suffer from general chronic pain, and it is my goal for the Pain Free Socket to be commercially available by 2014.

I consider my biggest accomplishment so far to be the fact that I saw a problem in my military community and have worked hard to hopefully bring about a solution. My father’s military career in many ways has shaped me into the young adult I am today, and at the end of the day, I’m very blessed to be my father’s daughter.