Hospital visits due to prescription pain killers are on the rise — more than doubling from 2005 to now, according to new government data — which shows 1.27 million people went to the ER or were hospitalized because of opioids in 2014 and Massachusetts has among the highest rates in the nation. For people who suffer from chronic pain, relief is hard to find. But a Waltham company is trying to offer a glimmer of hope with an over-the-counter device — no pills required.

Tom Shea was 20 years-old when he got into a car accident in Worcester that left him with a severe back injury, and began a decades-long battle with prescription drug use.

I went through the whole gamut of them through my doctor, whether it be Tramadol, Vicodin, Percocet, all the way up to the Oxycontin," Shea said. "When your body gets used to them, that’s the addicted part because you don’t really realize that at first, but it gets to the point where it wears you down and becomes the only thing that you think about.”

When three back surgeries over the course of nine months didn’t mitigate the pain, the meds were the only thing that allowed him to be active with his family.

When you ran out of them, it basically became hell on earth," he said. "I don’t know that people really understand the side effects or withdrawal symptoms, but it changes your mind. It changes your body.”

Fed up, the father of four quit his meds two years ago, accepting a life of chronic pain that was, at times, debilitating. But three months ago, things took a dramatic turn when he started wearing a neurostimulating device on his leg, called Quell.

There are some times when I feel like I don’t have an injury. To have times when I actually feel normal, is huge to me,” Shea said.

So how does a device that you wear on your upper calf relieve pain elsewhere? At the Neurometrix factory in Woburn, CEO Shai Gozani explains how Quell works.

“It stimulates the nerves of the upper calf," Gozani said. "There's nothing magical about the upper calf other than that it's a place with a lot of nerves.”

With electrodes and hydrogel pads, Quell sends high-frequency electrical pulses to those nerves. This signals the brain to release its own painkillers — called endogenous opioids. They essentially channel our brain’s own morphine.

“They safely decreases your perception of pain,” said Gozani. “And regardless of where the location of the pain is, it's a systemic and widespread effect.”

Quell sends pulses for an hour, and then stops for an hour so the nervous system can reset. All the while, a smartphone app keeps track of the data via bluetooth. But the app is optional and not required to operate the device.

Electrical nerve stimulation therapy has been widely used since the 1970s, most commonly in the form of TENS devices. More recently, electrotherapy has been taking off, as other devices and procedures using similar technology continue to make their way into the market.

Not everyone is as quick to jump on board with the nerve-based treatment, though. Winchester resident Paula Gaines has been dealing with multiple sclerosis for the last 17 years.

“My legs, generally, is where I feel my pain. It comes and goes and it's not constant," Gaines said. "One day I'll have ice bucket feet and the next day they'll be on fire. I just had to live with it."

At first, she was skeptical about Quell.

“I didn't know if it was the device, if it was the disease or if it was placebo effect,” she said. “It's hard to buy into something when you've gone that long feeling pain that people either can't diagnose or they can't, you know, tell you how to treat it or give you anything that works.”

These days, Gaines no longer needs a cane, and she’d like to keep it that way. The same goes for Tom Shea, who’s now clocking in 10,000 steps a day.

The big caveat? Nerve stimulation therapy does not work for everyone. Shai Gozani says Quell works in about 80 percent of users, and effectiveness can vary depending on the person.

The one category of pain it’s not particularly effective in, is headache and migraines but other common forms, like back pain and nerve pain and fibromyalgia and arthritic pain — those are all quite effective in those types.” Gozani said.

As for those endogenous opioids, there’s a lot of research looking into using our brain’s own painkillers in how we study and treat other conditions, like depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. It’s too early to say where this will take us but it’s possible that whatever ails you next might not be treated with a pill.