If you’re among the 30 million or so Americans living some type of chronic back pain, you may benefit from a pain management option known as spinal cord stimulation (SCS). It’s a technique sometimes referred to as neurostimulation that interferes with pain signals sent from the spinal cord to the brain. Involving the use of a small implantable device, it’s a pain management solution that may be an acceptable alternative to spine surgery if you’re not having success with other pain relief methods.
How Spinal Cord Stimulation Works
Spinal cord stimulation helps control persistent discomfort with the delivery of electric current to the spinal cord. The current is transmitted through a device called a spinal cord stimulator or dorsal column stimulator. It’s similar in shape and design to a pacemaker. After the device is implanted under the skin, a small wire will carry the electric current from a pulse generator to nerves in the spinal cord.
When the device is activated, you’ll likely feel a mild tingling sensation in the area where it’s located. The electric current from the device interferes with the normal transmission of pain signals from the spinal cord to the brain in the affected area and less discomfort is experienced.
After implantation, the device will be programmed by the doctor. The most common type of spina cord stimulator is an internal pulse generator. Some devices include a hand-held remote the patient can use to easily adjust the electrical pulses. The rechargeable battery system used in most devices lasts for about ten years.
Conditions That May Respond Well to SCS
Spinal cord stimulation is often recommended for patients who have nerve-related pain in the lower back or neck that’s felt in nearby areas like the arms, legs, or thighs (radiculopathy or radiculitis). It may also benefit patients who’ve experienced failed back surgery syndrome, which sometimes occurs when there are other contributing factors to back pain beyond what was corrected surgically. SCS may also ease chronic pain related to:
- Sciatic nerve pain (sciatica) affecting legs
- Recurring pain related to arthritis or spinal stenosis
- Inflammation of a protective layer on spinal nerves (meninges)
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Spinal cord injuries
What to Expect from Spinal Cord Stimulation
SCS will not eliminate all instances of pain that may stem from parts of the spinal cord or adjacent nerves. Results will vary with each person, although the standard goal for most patients is a 50 to 70 percent reduction in pain. Because some people find the tingling sensation uncomfortable, patients are able to use to the device for a trail period before it is implanted permanently. For many patients, SCS provides enough relief to go back to daily activities or participate more in physical therapy sessions without distracting pain.
Are You an Ideal Candidate for SCS?
Determining whether or not you’re an ideal candidate for spinal cord stimulation will start with a thorough examination and an assessment of the type of pain you are experiencing. It’s a process that typically includes a discussion of remedies you’ve already tried and results you’ve had with those treatments. Some patients also undergo psychological and neurological testing.
Spinal cord stimulation is not recommended for patients who have a cardiac pacemaker already inserted. If spine pain is related to correctable condition, an attempt must be made to correct it first. Preferred candidates for SCS are generally patients who:
- Aren’t having success with conservative (non-surgical) treatments
- Have been experiencing chronic pain for more than 12 months
- Do not have persistent depression or other serious psychological issues
- Aren’t overly dependent on pain medications for relief
- Have had positive results with SCS during the trail use period
Another appealing benefit of spinal cord stimulation is that it’s a reversible remedy. If you’re not experiencing meaningful results anymore or wish to try other pain management techniques, the implanted device can be safely removed. Whether or not you’ll benefit from SCS will depend on several factors, including the extent of your spine-related pain and how accurately your condition was diagnosed prior to trying it. Devices used today are smaller than what was used when SCS first became available in the late 1960s. Additionally, the procedure to insert the transmitter has also become less invasive.