Spinal cord stimulation is a therapy that masks pain signals before they reach the brain. A small device, similar to a pacemaker, is implanted in the body to deliver electrical pulses to the spinal cord. It helps people better manage their chronic pain symptoms and decrease the use of opioid medications. It may be an option if you suffer chronic back, leg or arm pain and have not found relief with other therapies.
What is a spinal cord stimulator?
A spinal cord stimulator (SCS) device is surgically placed under your skin and sends a mild electric current to your spinal cord (Fig. 1). A small wire carries the current from a pulse generator to the nerve fibers of the spinal cord. When turned on, the SCS stimulates the nerves in the area where your pain is felt. Pain is reduced because the electrical pulses modify and mask the pain signal from reaching your brain.
Stimulation does not eliminate the source of pain, it simply interferes with the signal to the brain, and so the amount of pain relief varies for each person. Also, some patients find the tingling sensation unpleasant. For these reasons a trial stimulation is performed before the device is permanently implanted. The goal of spinal cord stimulation is a 50-70% reduction in pain. However, even a small amount of pain reduction can be significant if it helps you to perform your daily activities with less pain and reduces the amount of pain medication you take. Stimulation does not work for everyone. If unsuccessful, the implant can be removed and does not damage the spinal cord or nerves.
Some SCS devices use a low-frequency current to replace the pain sensation with a mild tingling feeling called paresthesia. Other SCS devices use high-frequency or burst pulses to mask the pain with no tingling feeling. A paresthesia-free setting is an option on most devices.
Stimulation does not eliminate the source of pain. It simply changes the way the brain perceives it. As a result, the amount of pain relief varies for each person. The goal for SCS is a 50 to 70% reduction in pain. However, even a small amount of pain reduction can be significant if it helps you perform daily activities and reduces the amount of pain medication you take. SCS does not improve muscle strength.
Stimulation does not work for everyone. Some patients may find the sensation unpleasant. In other cases, it may not cover the entire pain area. For these reasons a trial stimulation is performed before the device is permanently implanted. If unsuccessful, the trial wires can be removed, leaving no damage to the spinal cord or nerves.
Who is a candidate?
An evaluation of your physical condition, medication regime, and pain history will determine whether your goals of pain management are appropriate for SCS. A neurosurgeon, physiatrist, or pain specialist will review all previous treatments and surgeries. Because chronic pain also has emotional effects, a psychologist will assess your condition to maximize the probability of a successful outcome.
Patients selected for SCS usually have had chronic debilitating pain for more than 3 months in the lower back, leg (sciatica), or arm. They also typically have had one or more spinal surgeries.
Who performs the procedure?
Neurosurgeons and doctors who specialize in pain management (an anesthesiologist or physiatrist) implant spinal cord stimulators.
What happens before surgery?
You may be scheduled for presurgical tests (e.g., blood test, electrocardiogram, chest X-ray) several days before surgery. In the doctor’s office, you will sign consent and other forms so that the surgeon knows your medical history (allergies, medicines/vitamins, bleeding history, anesthesia reactions, previous surgeries). Inform your healthcare provider about all the medications (over-the-counter, prescription, herbal supplements) that you are taking.
Stop taking all non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (Naprosyn, Advil, Motrin, Nuprin, Aleve, etc.) and blood thinners (Coumadin, Plavix, etc.) 1 to 2 weeks before surgery as directed by the doctor. In addition, stop smoking, chewing tobacco, and drinking alcohol 1 week before and 2 weeks after surgery, because these activities can cause bleeding problems. No food or drink is permitted past midnight the night before surgery.
What happens after surgery?
You will wake up in the recovery area. Your blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration will be monitored, and your pain will be addressed. Most patients are discharged home the same day or the following morning. The pulse generator will be programmed before you leave. You will be given written instructions to follow when you go home.
Approximately 10 days after surgery you will come to the office to have the sutures or staples removed. Programming of the pulse generator can be adjusted at this time if needed. It is important to work with your doctor to adjust your medications and refine the programming of the stimulator.
Your pain specialist and device representative will work with you to fine-tune adjustments to the SCS.
What are the results?
The results of SCS depend on careful patient selection, successful trial stimulation, proper surgical technique, and patient education. Stimulation does not cure the condition that is causing pain. Rather, it helps patients manage pain. SCS is considered successful if the pain is reduced by at least half.
Published studies of spinal cord stimulation show good to excellent long-term relief in 50 to 80% of patients suffering from chronic pain [1-6]. One study reports that 24% of patients improved sufficiently to return to gainful employment or housework with stimulation alone or with the addition of occasional oral pain medication .
SCS therapy is reversible. If a patient decides at any time to discontinue, the electrode wires and generator can all be removed.
What are the risks?
No surgery is without risks. General complications of any surgery include bleeding, infection, blood clots, and reactions to anesthesia. Specific complications related to SCS may include:
Conditions for which you might need additional surgery include movement of the lead, breakage of the lead or extension wire, or (in rare cases) mechanical failure of the device. Reasons for removal of the device include infection and failure to relieve pain.
Sometimes scar tissue develops around the electrode and can make the stimulation less effective.