The Future Of Pain Management

Arun Nijhawan
Founder and CEO
1hr 27min
November 2, 2023
About the Show

"The current system favors expensive yet ineffective surgeries and medications covering up symptoms instead of underlying drivers."

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Arun Nijhawan is the co-founder and CEO of Menda Health, a startup using therapy to provide drug and surgery-free treatment for chronic pain. He was previously co-founder of FillMyFork, a startup focused on healthy eating that was acquired by FoodSmart. Nijhawan studied astrophysics in college before moving to Silicon Valley to participate in the prestigious Alchemist accelerator program run by billionaire VC Tim Draper. He overcame significant health challenges starting from a young age, including lifelong kidney disease that required a transplant at age 18 and years of debilitating chronic back pain. 

In this wide-ranging interview, Nijhawan shares his origin story as the son of immigrant entrepreneurs and discusses the difficulties facing children of immigrants navigating between cultures. Nijhawan also talks about developing chronic back pain while working at FoodSmart, which led him on a journey of research and discovery into new ways of treating chronic pain focused on the brain and nervous system rather than just the physical structure.

The interview provides an inside look at Nijhawan's latest venture Menda Health, which takes a similar approach to treating chronic pain by training therapists and using technology to increase access. He explains how they pivoted to a tech-enabled services model and now accept insurance to remove barriers for patients. Nijhawan argues passionately that the current healthcare system is failing people with chronic pain, costing $650 billion annually, and needs to change its focus from surgeries and medications to nervous system-based treatments. For young entrepreneurs, he shares lessons on bootstrapping and patience in startup journeys.

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The Future Of Pain Management With Arun Nijhawan

Arun Nijhawan has been overcoming challenges and following his curiosity since childhood, leading him on an unexpected journey from tech entrepreneur to pioneer in chronic pain treatment. His resilience in the face of health struggles and passion for helping others out of pain is changing lives.

Overcoming Early Health Challenges to Find Success as a Young Founder

Nijhawan grew up outside Boston as the son of immigrant entrepreneurs from India. He faced health problems from a young age, including lifelong kidney disease that eventually required an organ transplant at just 18 years old. 

Despite these early struggles, Nijhawan developed an optimistic spirit and multitude of interests, including technology, business, and healthcare. After studying astrophysics in college, his entrepreneurial side drew him to the prestigious Alchemist startup accelerator in Silicon Valley, run by billionaire investor Tim Draper.

There he launched his first startup, Fill My Fork, with the mission of helping people eat healthy. "We were 23 years old, and we're like, we have no idea how to solve this problem," Nijhawan recalls with amusement. While he didn't take the textbook path of thorough market research, Nijhawan managed to get Fill My Fork off the ground and gain traction. After pivoting to serve corporate wellness programs, the young company was acquired by FoodSmart, now known as Zapango. The exit gave Nijhawan invaluable experience for his future ventures.

Battling Chronic Pain Sparks a Journey to Find Relief

Shortly after the acquisition, while working at FoodSmart, Nijhawan began developing severe chronic back pain that eventually left him unable to stand or walk for more than 5 minutes. "I was in this kind of constant state of threat," he explains, relating it to past health trauma.

"I went through what we described to our patients now as the hope disappointment cycle many times," Nijhawan shares. He desperately tried various treatments - pills, physical therapy, spinal injections. But nothing provided lasting relief, instead often leaving him with terrible side effects.

At his lowest point, Nijhawan came across the work of Dr. John Sarno, a doctor pioneering psychological treatment for back pain. Though initially skeptical, he saw himself in the patients Sarno described. "This sounds like me," Nijhawan realized. "I'm on to something here."

Discovering a New Approach to Overcoming Chronic Pain

Curious and driven by his own experience, Nijhawan dove into research on treating chronic pain through the nervous system and brain rather than just physical structures. He began cautiously trying basic meditations focused on "retraining" his pain pathways.

During one pivotal meditation session, Nijhawan experienced his back pain shift locations in real-time - evidence of neuroplasticity starting to take effect. Combined with the science he was learning, everything clicked. "That happened, and I just, everything that I learned up until that point through what people were sharing, came into focus," he recalls.

While his recovery took time and consistency, Nijhawan was eventually able to fully overcome his debilitating chronic back pain through this brain-based approach. He became determined to help others struggling in the same way.

"It's just very sad actually," Nijhawan laments about the expensive and isolating experience of many chronic pain patients. "Our whole cost of [treatment] for seven months, meeting every week with support in between every session, costs as much as two steroid injections and a pill."

Revolutionizing Chronic Pain Treatment Through Menda Health

Equipped with personal experience and a passion for improving care, Nijhawan launched Menda Health alongside two co-founders in 2020. Just as he benefited from psychological techniques, Menda Health trains therapists to treat chronic pain using non-invasive methods focused on the nervous system.

However, bringing an innovative healthcare model mainstream doesn't come easy. "It's about changing the paradigm around how we think, talk, and address pain," says Nijhawan. He explains that the current system favors expensive yet ineffective surgeries and medications covering up symptoms instead of underlying drivers.

Early patient results are building Nijhawan's case. One Medicare Advantage plan found that 84% of their elderly patients achieved pain relief through Menda Health's virtual group therapy sessions without drugs or side effects.

As the company expands, Nijhawan envisions a future where chronic pain is treated based on root causes, not just structure and painkillers. Judging by his personal journey and mission so far, he may be the one to galvanize this change.

No matter the challenges ahead, Nijhawan will leverage his resilience and innovative spirit to create a new paradigm for chronic pain treatment. His story serves as inspiration that no matter how hopeless a health situation may seem, there are always new solutions to be found.

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