To test the robustness and signal-to-noise ratio of pain-related evoked potentials following intra-epidermal electrical stimulation (IES) compared to contact heat stimulation in healthy controls, and to explore the feasibility and potential added value of IES in the diagnosis of spinal disorders.
Pain-related evoked potentials induced by IES (custom-made, non-invasive, concentric triple pin electrode with steel pins protruding 1 mm from the anode, triangularly separated by 7-10 mm respectively) and contact heat stimulation were compared in 30 healthy subjects. Stimuli were applied to four different body sites. Two IES intensities, i.e., high (individually adapted to contact heat painfulness) and low (1.5 times pain threshold), were used. Additionally, a 40-year-old patient with unilateral dissociated sensory loss due to a multi-segmental syringohydromyelia was assessed comparing IES and contact heat stimulation.
Both IES and contact heat stimulation led to robust pain-related evoked potentials recorded in all healthy subjects. Low intensity IES evoked potentials (14.1-38.0 µV) had similar amplitudes as contact heat evoked potentials (11.8-32.3 µV), while pain ratings on the numeric rating scale were lower for IES (0.8-2.5, compared to 1.5-3.9 for contact heat stimulation). High intensity IES led to evoked potentials with higher signal-to-noise ratio than low intensity IES and contact heat stimulation. The patient case showed impaired pain-related evoked potentials in segments with hypoalgesia for both IES modes. IES evoked potentials were preserved, with delayed latencies, while contact heat evoked potentials were abolished.
IES evoked robust pain-related cortical potentials, while being less painful in healthy controls. The improved signal-to-noise ratio supports the use of IES for objective segmental testing of nociceptive processing. This was highlighted in a spinal syndrome case, where IES as well as contact heat stimulation reliably detected impaired segmental nociception.