Starting on the path to recovery can be challenging. When someone begins treatment for an opioid use disorder, they usually go through detoxification. This is a period of time when they are withdrawing from the physical effects of heroin, fentanyl, prescription pain relievers or other opioids, often under medical supervision.
Detoxing can result in extremely painful and seemingly unbearable opioid withdrawal symptoms. These can include nausea, chills, sweating, depression, anxiety, exhaustion, tremors, sleeplessness, extreme fear or paranoia and more. The difficulty of detox and withdrawal may discourage people from reducing or stopping opioid use.
However, there is a new type of earpiece that may be able to help ease the pain of withdrawal symptoms and assist in the treatment process. Read on to learn more.
What is it?
In 2017, the FDA approved use of the NSS-2 Bridge, created by the company Masimo, to help with opioid withdrawal symptoms. The Bridge is an earpiece that transmits electric pulses to the brain to reduce withdrawal symptoms. This is known as neuro-electric therapy (NET).
Additionally, the Sparrow Therapy System, created by Spark Biomedical, was granted FDA clearance in 2021. This earpiece also sends electric signals to the brain to help reduce withdrawal symptoms. It refers to its therapy system as Transcutaneous Auricular Neurostimulation (tAN). Other earpieces that work the same way include Speranza Therapeutics’ S.T. Genesis device.
These earpieces have been in use for several years, prescribed to patients off-label, but have gained greater attention in recent years.
How does it work?
Substance use changes the brain. Substance use can cause the brain to release high levels of chemicals that cause feelings of pleasure. As a person continues to use substances, their brain starts to rely on these rewarding chemicals for pleasure and becomes less sensitive to them. As a result, a person may need to use more of the substance just to feel the same way they felt with lower amounts. This is called tolerance. When the brain gets a reduced amount of substances or none at all, withdrawal symptoms set in.
According to their manufacturers, these devices work by sending mild electrical pulses to certain nerves in and around the ear. These pulses send a message to the brain to fill empty receptors with endorphins – the same kind of endorphins people get when running. They act to increase one’s sense of well-being while reducing pain. This can relieve withdrawal symptoms and help transition a patient to medications for addiction treatment. In the case of the Sparrow, patients can personally control the amount of nerve stimulation they are receiving.
These earpieces may be particularly helpful for individuals who are about to start monthly naltrexone treatments (also known by the brand name Vivitrol) for opioid use disorder. In order to begin naltrexone treatment, a patient needs to be completely free of opioids for at least 7 days. This can be very difficult, as a person may experience severe withdrawal symptoms and be at risk of relapse. This device can relieve these symptoms and help a patient safely transition to using medications for opioid use disorder.
Does it work?
There are pros and cons to the use of these devices.
- Because this is an external device, it will not interact with other medications.
- Patients do not have to experience withdrawal to start using this device. This can help transition them into medication treatment using non-opioid medications like naltrexone.
- Small studies have shown that the device can offer very quick relief, with one finding that all patients’ withdrawal symptoms reduced in 30 minutes after using the Bridge. Another, conducted by Spark Biomedical, claimed its device caused a significant reduction of withdrawal symptoms within two days of use. 
- The device is convenient and can be used in multiple settings.
- More research is required to prove that these devices can actually help reduce withdrawal symptoms. Studies have had small sample sizes, and the Bridge has yet to be tested in a controlled clinical trial.
- These devices can be very expensive and may not be covered by insurance. If it is prescribed by a physician, the patient will likely need to purchase it out of pocket. This can cost several hundreds of dollars, upwards of $1000, depending on the device.
In general, research on these earpieces is continuing. A 2021 FDA-qualifying trial conducted by Wayne University, with participants from a treatment center in Kentucky, is currently ongoing. Spark Biomedical is also in the middle of a multiyear clinical trial.
Remember that there are many paths to recovery. Make sure that your loved one is receiving evidence-based, medically approved treatment. To learn more about treatment, recovery and how to reduce your loved one’s risks, visit our Treatment and Recovery page.