What is Spinal Cord Stimulation?
Spinal cord stimulation is a safe, reversible, and effective option for pain that hasn’t responded to more conservative options like pain medication, physical therapy, and steroid injections.
Spinal cord stimulators are used to treat chronic pain by interrupting the pain signals before they reach the brain. A small device called an implantable pulse generator is used to send an electrical current to the nerve fibers in the spinal cord. When the pulse generator is activated, the electrical currents will stimulate the nerves where the pain is felt and interrupt that signal to the brain. This device does not eliminate the source of the pain, it just prevents the brain from receiving the pain signals from the nerves in the spinal cord. The brain does not perceive the pain as pain but instead a tingling sensation is felt in the affected area of the body.
People with spinal cord stimulators typically report that their pain levels are cut by 50% or more. This is often enough to reduce dependence on other types of pain relief, such as opioid medications.
Both transcutaneous and fully implanted spinal cord stimulators are available. Each of these have both benefits and drawbacks. Talk with your doctor about your options to choose the device that is best for you.
How Does Spinal Cord Stimulation Work?
Treatment using spinal cord stimulators involves implanting a small pulse generator (implantable pulse generator) into the epidural space on the spine as well as very thin wires called leads. The leads are connected to specific nerves in the spinal cord causing pain. The generator emits constant electrical pulses through the leads to the nerves in the spinal cord, which interrupt the nerve impulses and prevents them from reaching the brain. The patient will be able to control their own therapy by adjusting the level of stimulation with the use of a handheld wireless device.
Before opting for this treatment, you can try spinal cord stimulation for a short time to see if this procedure is effective for you. A two-step screening process allows you to test this option before committing to the implant.
How is Spinal Cord Stimulation Performed?
The surgical implantation of the pulse generator and leads will take 20 minutes up to an hour. A local anesthetic is provided to keep you comfortable during the procedure. Your doctor will use X-ray guidance to ensure proper placement of the device. Two small incisions are made to the left and right of the area where the electrodes or leads will be placed. The lamina, a thin layer of tissue, is removed and the electrodes are placed in the epidural space of your spine. Your doctor will set the amplitude of the device’s electrical impulses based on the effective level for you. A pulse generator will also be placed during the procedure. Your doctor will work with you during the procedure to ensure that the electrodes are placed well in order to provide pain relief. Once implanted, the external lead wires will be securely taped to your back. After the procedure, you should take it easy and rest for the remainder of the day. If you experience any soreness, an ice pack may provide some relief.
Within two to three weeks, you should be able to resume light activities. Complete recovery can take six to eight weeks. Your doctor may recommend limiting certain physical activities for about three months. While the device will probably be ready for use right away, you may find it more comfortable to wait until any swelling related to your procedure to place the pulse generator and leads has gone down before starting to use it.
After your procedure, you will need to recharge the batteries in the device about once a week. This takes about two hours. You may be able to feel a small bump where the generator is located. This is unlikely to be visible over clothing.
Conditions Spinal Cord Stimulation Can Treat
A range of chronic conditions that do not respond to more conservative treatments can be effectively treated using spinal cord stimulation. These conditions include:
- Failed back surgery
- Spinal stenosis
- Arachnoiditis, a painful scarring of the protective layer of the spine
- Complex regional pain syndrome
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Refractory angina
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Spinal Cord Stimulators in the News
Read more about the benefits of a Spinal Cord Stimulator in USA Today by clicking here.