Spinal Cord Stimulation: What Conditions Can It Treat & Is It Right for You?
Back and leg pain is one of the most potentially debilitating conditions a person can endure, especially when it starts as the result of a serious spinal injury. Furthermore, neck and arm pain can be equally disabling. Whether an individual has a sudden fall that results in a herniated disc or is involved in a car accident that causes a vertebral fracture, the resulting pain and discomfort can keep a person from functioning normally. In some cases, the pain is chronic and severe in a way that makes a person unable to work or function normally.
Fortunately, modern medicine offers a variety of treatments for the correction of spinal injuries and relief of related back pain. One of the many options for back pain sufferers is spinal cord stimulation.
What Is Spinal Cord Stimulation?
Spinal cord stimulation, or SCS, is a medical treatment that involves the use of electrical signals to block pain nerves of the spine to greatly reduce the sensation of pain. This kind of treatment is usually used in cases where other treatments like medicine, exercise, and/or injections have not been successful. It may also be useful for those who have either had surgery and still suffer from pain, or where surgery is not an option.
To test whether electrical stimulation will be successful for a given patient, he or she is first given a trial stimulator. A local anesthetic is applied to the skin where the electrode will be inserted, and the appropriate wires are inserted under the skin in the space above the spinal cord, similar to an epidural injection. Then, those wires are connected to a small, portable external battery that provides the appropriate signal.
The patient will then go home and try the device for up to one week, simulating what life would be like with the device.. Depending on the level of relief, the readiness of the patient and any other medical concerns, the doctor may then suggest the implantation of a more permanent generator (powered either by a rechargeable battery or one that will need to be replaced every few years). If the trial is not successful, the trial wires are removed painlessly in the office, with no permanent consequence.
If it’s decided that a permanent generator is a good option, the patient will return a few weeks after initial testing for a one- to two-hour implantation surgery. Under sedation anesthesia, the more permanent wires and battery, will be implanted beneath the skin of either the buttocks or abdomen.1
Conditions Treatable by Spinal Cord Stimulation
Not all conditions can be solved by SCS, of course, but there are quite a few for which the pain can be dramatically reduced by the treatment. Spinal cord stimulation has been successfully used to treat a variety of conditions, such as the following 1:
- Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS)
- Chronic back pain and neck pain, with or without pain of the legs and arms
- Neuropathic pain (diabetic neuropathy, chemotherapy or radiation induced neuropathy) Increasing, persistent back pain that is not alleviated by medication, exercise, or other treatments
If your back pain is causing you significant distress, has persisted after repeated back surgeries, and cannot be managed well by standard medications and spinal treatments, your condition may be treatable by spinal cord stimulation. Discuss this option with your physician to determine whether or not you’re a good candidate for the procedure.
Benefits and Risks
Successful spinal cord stimulation therapy has numerous benefits. The implantation procedure is significantly more affordable than other surgical options, the pain relief is targeted specifically to the area of the pain, and hand-held control technology makes the system easy to use. Spinal cord stimulation has also been found effective for significantly reducing the use of opioid medications, even in patients who had experienced chronic spine pain for over a decade.2
Those patients for whom spinal cord stimulation is successful generally experience significant relief from chronic pain and may even find themselves capable of going back to work and/or taking on more physical tasks. Of course, it is always recommended to continue monitoring the spinal condition and to treat an injured spine with care regardless of whether the pain is under control.
As with any surgical procedure, the insertion of electrodes/generators for spinal cord stimulation carries a certain amount of medical risk. Potential risks may include leakage of cerebrospinal fluid, nerve damage or weakness, increased pain, infection (usually leading to removal of the generator and/or electrode), or stimulator malfunction/failure. 1 When consulting with a spinal surgeon about this treatment, he or she will go over these risks with you in greater detail. If you have any concerns, be sure to raise them in this conversation.
There are also a few other medical compromises you may want to consider before pursuing spinal cord stimulation; other electrically-based medical devices, like defibrillators and pacemakers, may not function properly due to interference from the SCS generator’s current. Likewise, you may not be able to undergo MRI scans while the SCS materials are present, depending on which manufacturer is chosen.. 1 If you have concerns about any such interference, be sure to talk to your doctor(s) about them before agreeing to undergo spinal cord stimulation treatment.
Seek Professional Treatment for Your Persistent Back Pain
If your debilitating back pain has persisted through numerous treatments and surgeries, don’t give up on seeking professional help for your condition. If a spinal specialist determines that you are a good candidate for spinal cord stimulation, this may be the treatment that finally works to get you back on your feet.
At the Weill Cornell Medicine Comprehensive Spine Center, our primary concerns are the health of your back and the quality of your life. Whatever the cause of your injury, whatever the intensity of your pain, our experienced professional spinal specialists can diagnose your condition and help you determine the best course of action.
To learn more about what a spine doctor from Weill Cornell Medicine: Comprehensive Spine can do for you and your back pain, contact us today at 888-922-2257.
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