Individuals suffering from chronic pain can find relief in a variety of ways, including surgery, physical therapy, injections, alternative treatments, and opioids. This article will focus on spinal cord stimulation, which is a non-invasive surgical method of treating chronic pain.

What is Spinal Cord Stimulation?

Spinal cord stimulation is achieved through a spinal cord stimulator, which is a small electrical device that consists of wires (electrodes) and a battery pack (the generator). The device is like a pacemaker and is inserted underneath the skin near the buttocks or abdomen.

This device works by transforming pain signals as they travel to the brain. When the body senses pain due to inflammation, injury, disease or other causes, nerves in the affected area transmit signals that travel through the spinal cord to the brain. These signals tell the brain that the body is in pain, and recent studies have shown that continuous pain signals affect the brain. Chronic pain can reduce grey matter in the brain, which in turn lessens memory processing, focus, and motor skills.

A spinal cord stimulator masks these pain signals as they travel through the spinal cord. Electrodes from the stimulator are placed over the spinal cord, and they emit electric signals that modify the pain signals from the affected area. Due to this electrical modification, the brain perceives either no pain signals at all or a tingling feeling. The source of the pain is still present, but with the spinal cord stimulator, the brain’s perception of the pain is altered.

What are the Types of Spinal Cord Stimulators?

There are three main types of spinal cord stimulators. Regardless of the battery type, all spinal cord stimulators are comprised of a pulse generator to create the electrical pulses, the electrodes to deliver the electrical pulses, and a remote control that turns the device on and off and can adjust the settings.

Conventional Implantable Pulse Generator

This stimulator runs on a battery that is surgically inserted and must be replaced when the battery dies (typically every two to five years). The electrical output on this stimulator is lower than other stimulators, and it does well in targeting one area of the body.

Rechargeable Implantable Pulse Generator

This stimulator runs on a rechargeable battery, and the result is that this stimulator produces a stronger and more far-reaching electrical output. This stimulator lasts for eight to ten years if charged daily. This type of stimulator can be beneficial for individuals experiencing pain in numerous areas.

Radiofrequency Stimulator

This stimulator runs on a rechargeable battery located outside of the body, yet it is rarely used in modern medicine.

What is the Process for Receiving a Spinal Cord Stimulator?

Typically patients experiencing chronic pain will try physical therapy and other less-invasive treatment options before being considered for a spinal cord stimulator. The process for receiving a spinal cord stimulator is split into the trial and implantation period.

In the trial period, the patient receives a temporary stimulator to test out. Some patients find the tingling sensation caused by the stimulator to be unpleasant, or they find that the pain is still noticeable even with the stimulator. For these reasons, there is a one-week trial period to test the device.

To insert the test stimulator, the surgeon uses a moving X-ray image called a fluoroscopy to place the electrodes in the epidural space of the spine. Many times, there is only one incision required to place the electrodes, and the battery pack is clipped to a belt outside the body.

Throughout the week, the patient uses the test stimulator and observes how well pain is eliminated or masked. The patient discusses the results with their doctor at the end of the week, and the stimulator is considered a success if 50% or more pain has been masked.

If the trial is determined to be successful, the patient will receive a permanent implant in which both the battery pack and electrodes are placed underneath the skin. This procedure takes about one to two hours, and patients can return to work and drive within one to two weeks after surgery.

Benefits of a Spinal Cord Stimulator

There are a variety of spinal cord stimulators on the market. One company, Medtronic, describes benefits to their spinal cord stimulator such as personalized pain relief, high-performance battery options, access to MRI scans, and a staggering statistic of 80% back relief for seven out of ten patients.

In general, spinal cord stimulators are beneficial because a reduction of pain, even if it is slight, can help patients resume day-to-day activities and establish a sense of normalcy.

Risks of a Spinal Cord Stimulator

As with most medical procedures, there are risks associated with a spinal cord stimulator, including infection, bleeding, device damage, device moving in the body, and nerve injury. There are also special considerations that patients with spinal cord stimulators must make. Patients cannot undergo MRI scans (newer models can facilitate MRI scans) or drive with a spinal cord stimulator.

Advanced Pain Institute of Texas

If you are suffering from chronic pain and have exhausted other treatment options, a spinal cord stimulator might be for you! Contact the doctors at Advanced Pain Institute of Texas today to learn more about spinal cord stimulation.