Spinal cord stimulation has become a mainstream treatment for patients experiencing chronic back pain or pain in their limbs resulting from an issue with the spine. Before spinal cord stimulation is used, a patient should have tried other treatment methods without success. While this treatment isn’t successful for everyone, most patients report an up to 70 percent reduction in the amount of pain, as well as an increased ability to participate in regular activities. Many patients find that they can stop taking painkillers and resume a normal life as much as possible.
Blocking Pain Signals
Spinal cord stimulation is also called “neurostimulation,” and it works by directing an electric current to the area that is causing the pain. The pleasant sensation that is produced blocks the brain’s ability to sense the pain it perceived before. This is done in two ways:
- Peripheral Nerve Field Stimulation (PNFS) – Leads are placed just under the skin in the area where the nerves are in pain.
- Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS) – Very thin wires with electrical leads attached are placed in the back near the spine through a needle in the back. No incision is made during this part of the process. The incision is made when a small generator is placed in the upper abdomen or buttock. This generator produces the electrical currents, and it is programmable.
When you have spinal cord stimulation performed, it is important to note how much pain relief you have experienced. As the pain improves, the amount of stimulation can be adjusted.
Conditions Treatable by SCS
Many conditions can lead to chronic pain in the back. While spinal cord stimulation doesn’t do away with the source of the pain, it helps manage the pain. The following are the conditions that are treatable by SCS:
- Complex regional pain syndrome – This is a nervous system disease, and it is progressive. It produces a constant burning sensation.
- Failed back surgery syndrome – This is when back surgery fails and the pain is persistent.
- Causalgia – Peripheral nerve damage creates a burning sensation.
- Arachnoiditis – The inflammation is painful and the meninges of the spinal nerves can be scarred.
Are You a Candidate?
To be a candidate for spinal cord stimulation, you must have chronic back pain with or without pain in the legs, chronic neck pain without pain in the arm, peripheral neuropathy, prior back surgery, peripheral vascular disease, or Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) refractory angina or other treatments haven’t helped the pain.
While many people have benefitted from spinal cord stimulation, it isn’t for everyone. It is not a method to be used on people with correctable lesions that can be treated with surgery. Women who are pregnant, individuals with systemic infections, patients that are sensitive to electrical currents, those with pacemakers, and those that don’t have a greater than 50 percent reduction in pain during trial stimulation aren’t good candidates.
Trial stimulation is a period in which a temporary stimulator is used to see how a patient reacts to the device. The leads are still placed under the skin, but this is an outpatient procedure and only takes 10 to 20 minutes. It isn’t as involved as a more permanent unit.