Overcoming Chronic Back Pain With A Spinal Cord Stimulator

Chronic back pain can significantly lower a patient’s quality of life and lead to depression and anxiety. For chronic back pain sufferers, a spinal cord stimulator can send electrical pulses to the spinal cord to reduce overall pain levels. While the device does not treat the cause of the pain, the spinal cord stimulator can drastically improve a person’s pain sensitivity.

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What is a spinal cord stimulator?

A spinal cord stimulator is a small, implanted device used by patients that have not experienced relief with traditional treatment options. The device is comprised of thin electrode wires and a small generator, similar to a pacemaker. The device is implanted near the abdomen and buttocks and allows patients to regulate electrical pulses through remote control.
Many spinal cord stimulators manage back pain with low-frequency pulses that leave behind a mild tingling, also known as paresthesia. Updated spinal cord stimulators use high-frequency currents that can remove pain sensation without the tingling side effects. The amount of pain relief experienced varies by person.

Are you a candidate for spinal cord stimulation?

A doctor will perform a physical exam and look through a patient’s medical history to determine the appropriate pain management strategy. Doctors may recommend the surgery to patients that have experienced chronic back pain for more than 3 months without relief. The following conditions may be treated with a spinal cord stimulator:

  • Back pain, especially discomfort that continued after back surgery
  • Post-surgical pain
  • Arachnoiditis, or painful inflammation of the lining that covers the brain and spinal cord
  • Pain after an amputation
  • Complex regional pain syndrome
  • Peripheral vascular disease
  • Nerve-related pain

Types of spinal cord stimulators

Before being prescribed a spinal cord stimulator, a doctor will have to decide which type of spinal cord stimulator to use. The three models include a battery-operated stimulator, a rechargeable one, or a radiofrequency stimulator.

Options with a battery

A battery-operated stimulator uses a replaceable battery. The implantable pulse generator (IPG) is recommended for people with pain in one area.

Rechargeable IPGs

A rechargeable IPG can last up to 2-3 times longer than conventional IPGs. Rechargeable IPGs are recommended for patients with lower back pain or pain in the legs.

Radiofrequency stimulators

A radiofrequency stimulator’s battery is not as favored over newer technology. The device has rechargeable batteries and can provide electrical output for pain over a large area.

Surgical test and implant

Getting a spinal cord stimulator surgery requires a two-step process. During the first step, a temporary stimulator is implanted to test out the effects on the patient. After about a week, patients will gauge the impact of the device. If pain is reduced by more than 50%, the trial is a success.
The permanent, minimally invasive surgery takes about two hours to complete. Electrode leads are inserted into the middle of the back and secured with sutures. Patients can leave the surgery room the same day as the procedure once the sedation has worn off. Full recovery can take up to two weeks.

Living with a spinal cord stimulator

The surgeon will inform patients about the proper way to regulate the stimulation and control the strength. Living with a spinal cord stimulator can drastically improve a person’s life, but not without some limitations. Proper care of the stimulator is imperative to avoid complications or the need for more surgery. For more information about treating chronic back pain, speak with a pain management specialist.

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