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Neel Mehta, MD
Neel Mehta, MD

Q: Who is eligible for a muscle stimulation device?

A: That’s a great question, but before I answer, let’s talk about pain. When we think about back pain, we know muscle is also involved, not just nerves. Muscle pain can sometimes be overlooked.

The biggest muscle in the back is called the multifidus muscle. This muscle helps stabilize the spine when you stand or walk. As this muscle gets weaker it often causes back pain. Back pain puts stress on other joints and can lead to arthritis (joint swelling), causing more pain.

Muscle stimulation devices are helpful for patients with weak back muscles. It’s a shift from nerve stimulation, which blocks the pain, to actually strengthening the weak muscles involved in pain. These battery-powered devices are programmed to contract (tighten) and relax the multifidus muscle for 30 minutes twice a day.

The device is implanted (put in place) under the skin, so it does require minor surgery. We make a small incision (cut) in the low back area. We know the nerves that activate the multifidus muscle, and we wrap electrodes (wires) around those nerves. There’s no cut into bone or muscle. The procedure takes about an hour to an hour and a half and is done under sedation, meaning patients are asleep during surgery. They can go home the same day. It’s a straightforward, easy procedure — nothing like a spine operation.

This therapy is typically for patients who are middle to later aged (40 years old and older) who have muscle weakness and pain that developed over a period of time. These patients get to a point where they aren’t getting better with just physical therapy. Muscle stimulation is not for every patient. It’s typically not for younger people or for those who have had back surgery. Talk to your doctor about whether you are eligible for a muscle stimulation device.

At the Weill Cornell Medicine Center for Comprehensive Spine Care, we value you as a patient and will design treatments that meet your needs.

Dr. Neel Mehta, co-director, Weill Cornell Center for Comprehensive Spine Care

This question was answered during the episode of Spine Time called “It’s Electric! Muscle Stimulation for Back and Neck Pain.” A recording of this webinar held on November 3, 2021, is available on YouTube. To sign up for future episodes of Spine Time, where you can ask questions of our spine specialists, subscribe here.

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