When we think of innovators, we tend to imagine people who think so far outside of the box that they come up with ideas for things that we don’t even know we want. Some of the greatest inventions, however, have been the result of collaboration and refinement rather than explosive, solitary ideation.

One simple-seeming idea can change the world: the wheel. The printing press. Adhesive. From moving goods to moving ideas to literally keeping things from falling apart, these three examples changed the way we live in the world, making our lives better (if a bit more complicated).

In pain management, these same principles are hard at work. Chronic pain affects over 100 million people in the U.S., with economic repercussions in lost wages and productivity in the tens of billions of dollars annually. Researchers, doctors, and inventors are racing to innovate strategies in pain management and healthcare that may end up changing the world as we know it.

In a keynote speech during the 2015 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, Steve Case, former co-founder of AOL, calls this precipice of new discovery the third wave of internet technology. The first wave occurred between 1985 and 2000 and introduced the internet to the world. The second wave, from 2000 until now, saw companies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook building up the internet, monetizing and expanding our access to information through not only web content but also apps accessible on smartphones.

The third wave as Case sees it is will affect sectors like healthcare, food, education, and transportation, and it will move much more quickly than the past two waves. He noted that AOL reached ten million followers in ten years; Facebook reached that milestone in just ten months, and Snapchat did it in ten weeks. Not only will this wave move quickly, but it will also affect our daily lives in a way that previous technology hasn’t even touched.

Wearables track your health and help you manage pain

Consider wearables. In 2014, 17 million wearables shipped to stores. By 2017, that number will increase by 150% to 45 million. We now track every aspect of our health with a band strapped to our wrist or a device clipped to our clothing. New pain management wearables like Quell and CUR are even able to offer chronic pain treatments that were once only available through a trained physician. Now, you only need an internet connection to access these potentially life-changing treatments.

And it’s not just access that is changing. More people are gaining access to information and technology as the world become wireless and smartphones and internet connections expand, but the treatments themselves are next-level as well. New “intelligent” wearables can actually track your pain management and adapt its recommendation to fit whatever analytics your wearable might be sending. Some of these wearables even have the ability to forward your data directly to your doctor, perhaps eventually making a simple doctor’s visit a thing of the past.

Telemedicine connects doctors to patients

The internet and live streaming technologies like Skype are also making doctor’s visits obsolete, making everything from basic health care to doctor-to-doctor surgical consults available anywhere in the world. Doctors and patients can use webcams and streaming technologies (even something like a Google hangout or a teleconference) to perform consultations and even visual examinations. Doctors in rural or remote areas can consult with specialists a continent away to provide the latest in healthcare technology.

For chronic pain, this is a pain management tool that cannot be underestimated. Chronic pain often comes with mental health challenges, with each condition exacerbating the other. Over half of all counties in the U.S. lack even one qualified mental health professional. Telemedicine can begin to remedy that.

Researchers tap into the power of social media

It’s not just doctors helping patients with pain management. In the past, social media has proved to be a valuable tool for doctors and patients alike. It looks like that trend will continue. An interdisciplinary team of doctors and scientists at the University of Vermont has discovered a new way to monitor people for potentially dangerous drug side effects and interactions: combing millions of tweets.

Says Ahmed Abdeen Hamed, an interdisciplinary computer scientist who works in the University of Vermont’s Social-Ecological Gaming and Simulation Lab:

“I’m not a medical scientist. I work with Big Data…Our new algorithm is a great way to make discoveries that can be followed-up and tested by experts like clinical researchers and pharmacists. We may not know what the interaction is, but with this approach we can quickly find clear evidence of drugs that are linked together via hashtags.”

Dr. Hamed and his team monitor hashtags to find early evidence of potentially deadly issues with prescription medications.

Social media also reported the first case of ebola three days before official reports and has also accurately predicted trends in suicide and drug use. A global, online survey of social media use found some evidence that those who utilized social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook) for pain management did find some measure of relief from their symptoms. This survey concluded that more research is necessary for definitive answers on which types of pain is affected and which social media users find the most benefit, but it is clear that the connections people make online can have value in pain management.

What it comes down to is this: technological advances in pain management will encompass not only devices and treatments but also the ways in which we interact as humans to solve the problem of chronic pain.

While some believe that technology and sitting behind a screen has isolated people from each other, in many ways the internet has brought us together in unprecedented ways. New innovations in pain management will no longer take decades to bring to market, and as crowd sourcing and collaboration via the internet increases, fewer advances will be made by solo inventors alone.

It is an exciting time in pain management advances; what would you like to see happen next?

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