Chronic pain impacts every part of your life and medications are often not the answer. Recent advancement in the technology of spinal cord stimulators is now helping many patients alleviate chronic back and leg pain.

What is Spinal Cord Stimulation?

Spinal cord stimulation involves implanting a small device close to the spinal nerves. The device has two parts; thin wires that are inserted into the epidural space, between the spinal cord and the surrounding vertebrae, and a battery pack implanted near the buttocks or abdomen. The battery pack is somewhat similar to those used in pacemakers.

The device sends electrical impulses directly to the spinal cord, which appears to affect how your brain perceives pain by replacing it with other signals. A remote control is used to activate the implant when patient’s experience pain. The strength of the signal is completely under the patient’s control and is used as much, and only as much, as needed.

Who is a Candidate for Spinal Cord Stimulation?

Spinal cord stimulation is recommended for patients with chronic pain in the back, legs, or arms that have not responded to conservative treatments like injections or physical therapy. It is also sometimes recommended for nerve-related pain such as diabetic neuropathy, phantom pain in amputees, or nerve injuries.  The most common use is for failed back syndrome, which is chronic pain that remains after surgery despite adequate treatment.   However, it can also be used as a less invasive alternative to surgery depending on the cause of pain.

It is not recommended to implant a Spinal Cord Stimulator if you have epidural scarring from previous surgery, scoliosis (which can make it hard to properly place the electrodes), or severe spondylolisthesis. It is also not recommended for people who have demand-type cardiac pacemakers (as the two devices can interfere with each other), pregnant women, and people who operate certain equipment or machinery. Psychological screening is normal to ensure you understand how to use the device properly.

How is the Device Implanted?

The implantation procedure is simple and is generally done under sedation, not anesthesia. The incision sites are generally small. An X-ray is used to ensure the correct placement of the leads. A trial implant is inserted initially to evaluate the response to the stimulator.  Generally, this is an outpatient procedure that takes two to three hours. 

Once a permanent stimulator is implanted, you are released the same day, but should not stretch, twist, or reach for several days so as not to pull at your incisions. Keep to lighter activity for about two weeks and avoid driving. You will receive instruction on how and when to activate the device, which is intended, again, to be used as needed when you experience symptoms.

What Is it Like to Live with a Spinal Cord Stimulator?

Typically, a spinal cord stimulator is not noticeable to others unless you are using the remote. However, it can result in some limitations in activity.

Patients with a spinal cord stimulator should not be given MRIs, and the device may set off airport metal detectors. Your doctor will give you a card to show security. Stimulators should be powered off if you are driving, operating heavy machinery, or otherwise can’t afford to be distracted.

Physical trauma such as a severe fall can cause the leads to shift and become ineffective. This may require follow-up surgery to adjust the leads and place them back in the proper position.  Your doctor may recommend avoiding activities that carry with them a high risk of falling.

Patients will continue to be monitored as the system may need to be recalibrated to stay effective and every few years the battery will need to be replaced. Some systems have rechargeable batteries that are recharged at night and last longer.

If you have chronic pain and physical therapy and other non-invasive methods are not working, you should talk to your doctor about spinal cord stimulation. It’s a less invasive and risky procedure than surgery and can allow you to manage your pain without drugs.

To learn more about First State Spine and our highly-trained specialists who work with Spinal Cord Stimulators, fill out the form below: