Spinal Cord Stimulation 101 – What Is it and How Does it Work?
Spinal cord stimulation, often referred to as neurostimulation therapy, is a chronic pain therapy that’s been shown to be effective and safe for patients experiencing spine pain who have not enjoyed satisfactory results from other treatments for neck and back pain. Before considering this treatment, it’s important to explore how it works, for whom it works best, and the benefits and risks of treatment.
How Does Spinal Cord Stimulation Work?
Spinal cord stimulation works by delivering mild electrical pulses to the spine, resulting in a tingling feeling in the area affected by pain. A small stimulator, much like a pacemaker, is implanted under your skin to deliver these electrical pulses.
The spinal cord stimulation system implanted by your spine surgeon includes multiple components, including:
- Neurostimulator Device – This small device is generally implanted surgically beneath the skin in the upper buttock or abdomen and delivers mild electrical pulses.
- Physician Programmer – A computer at the spine doctor’s office that allows the doctor to set stimulation levels and adjust the system.
- Handheld Programmer – A small device like a remote control that you’re able to use to change how the stimulator works based upon pain levels or activities.
- Leads – Tiny medical wires that deliver the stimulation to the epidural space that is near your spine.
This therapy offers pain relief by actually modifying pain messages before they’re able to reach your brain. The device sends electrical pulses that reach your brain faster than the pain signals, so the device fools the brain by giving you a tingling sensation instead of pain.
A handheld programmer comes with the spinal cord stimulator, allowing you to adjust the location and strength of electrical stimulation. It’s possible to regulate stimulation levels for different activities or for different types of day.
Am I a Good Candidate for Spinal Cord Stimulation?
Generally, spinal cord stimulation treatment is a good choice for people dealing with severe, chronic pain who may have:
- Chronic pain syndromes (i.e. complex regional pain syndrome)
- Severe nerve-related numbness and/or pain
- Failed spine surgery syndrome
Patients considering this back pain treatment will want to go through a screening trial. This allows patients to get a good idea of what their results might be before the device is actually implanted. The screening trial involves trying a temporary system for three to seven days to see how well it reduces pain and helps patients achieve their pain management goals. If the trial system proves helpful, then you can discuss long-term spinal cord stimulation therapy with your spine specialist.
Benefits and Risks of Spinal Cord Stimulation for Spine Pain
Before moving forward with this treatment, it’s important to consider both the benefits and risks. Many patients experience significant improvements in quality of life and pain symptoms with this treatment. Some of the benefits of choosing spinal cord stimulation may include:
- Reduced need for oral pain medications
- Sustained and significant improvement in chronic pain
- Improved ability to take part in normal daily activities
- Safe and effective treatment method
- A reversible treatment option
- Easily adjustable to times of day and activities
Spinal cord stimulation therapy does come with some risks as well. Since the implant must be surgically placed, it’s possible to experience surgical complications, such as pain at the surgical site, bleeding in the epidural space, and infection. After implantation, device complications can occur, including movement of the lead, jolting, and lead breaking. However, in most cases, patients find that the benefits outweigh the risks, although the risks and benefits should be discussed with your spine doctor before moving forward.
How Effective Is Spinal Cord Stimulation?
Spinal cord stimulation continues to evolve and develop, and more studies are finding that this treatment method is effective for many patients. It’s effective at helping the pain that comes with complex regional pain syndrome and failed back surgery syndrome. Studies also show that it often provides relief to patients suffering from chronic low back pain. Some evidence suggestions that it may even aid in treating peripheral nerve pain and surgery pain, although studies are still limited.
If you’re dealing with spine pain that hasn’t responded to other treatments, spinal cord stimulation may provide you the relief you need. Set up your appointment with our spine specialist today to discuss the pros and cons of this treatment for you.