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Knee pain from osteoarthritis can be more than just a nuisance. As tissues that cushion the joint wear away, the disease can create painful, tender knees that keep people from everyday activities like riding a bike or walking the dog. To help resolve knee pain without invasive surgeries or addictive opioid pain medications, Brian Ahn, PhD, is testing a novel approach that goes directly to the source of all bodily pain: the brain.

“We think of knee pain as a joint problem, but many patients experience serious pain while their x-rays show only mild osteoarthritis,” says Ahn. “So instead of treating the joint, we are targeting signals in the brain that result in the sensation of pain.”

Using transcranial direct current stimulation—a treatment that sends tiny, pain-free electrical charges to the brain—Ahn and his team believe they can disrupt pain processing.They have already begun testing this therapy in clinical settings, and they recently received a grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research to expand their study and develop technology to make the therapy available at home.

“Patients need to use transcranial direct current stimulation several days in a row for it to be effective, so having home-based options for treatment will make it more accessible,” explains Ahn.

The take-home device is the size of a cell phone and easy for patients to use while guided by Ahn’s team over videoconference. To increase the potential efficacy of this treatment, Ahn and his team are also combining it with mindfulness meditation designed to help ease pain. With these two techniques, they hope to bring much-needed relief to patients suffering from knee osteoarthritis.

“Our population is getting older, so knee pain concerns will likely become a serious problem in the future,” says Ahn. “The generosity of donors is critical for the continued development, modification, and success of this kind of therapy that will make pain relief available to everyone.

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