Occasional pain due to overuse, or the aging process is common and perfectly normal. However, pain that persists for at least three months, that fails to resolve beyond a typical recovery period or that occurs as the result of a chronic health condition, or failed back surgery is not normal. For example, pain that develops and remains for months in the lower back, despite no obvious cause, is deemed chronic pain. It is estimated to affect nearly ¼ of the world’s population. Likewise, radiating nerve pain (radiculopathy), or nerve pain stemming from diabetes is considered a chronic condition. For patients with chronic pain, who haven’t gotten relief from physical therapy, injections, or medications, a spinal cord stimulator may be a treatment your physician recommends.
How Does a Spinal Cord Stimulator Work?
A spinal cord stimulator (SCS) is an implanted device that may eliminate the need for potentially addictive pain medications such as opioids. The SCS works by disrupting pain signals that are sent from nerves to the brain. It does this by delivering mild electrical impulses (a process known as neuromodulation) to your spinal cord. These impulses effectively prevent the brain from receiving signals from the nerve.
SCS was approved by the FDA in 1989, and today more than 30,000 people have the device implanted each year. Today, spinal cord stimulation is used in place of back surgeries that have a low likelihood of success. SCS has also been proven effective at treating peripheral neuropathy due to diabetes, chronic radiculopathy (chronic pinched nerve) injury to the brain or spine, a failed back surgery, or pain resulting from viral infections including shingles.
What Conditions May Benefit from Spinal Cord Stimulation?
Injuries and conditions that result in nerve pain are most likely to benefit from a spinal cord stimulator include:
- Back pain
- Back pain after surgery (failed back surgery syndrome)
- Cancer-related neuropathy
- Chronic leg pain
- Complex regional pain syndrome
- Degenerative disc disease
- Chronic Neck pain
- Pain that persists after surgery
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Spinal cord injuries (from a car accident, sports injury, fall, or other trauma)
What are the Risks of Spinal Cord Stimulators?
The implantation of the spinal cord stimulator requires minimally invasive surgery. As such, the same risks are present that are present in all surgeries. These include bleeding, pain at the surgery site, infection, or nerve damage. There is a very small risk of an allergic reaction to the device.
Side effects are rare, but are possible, as are serious risks such as a cerebrospinal fluid leak, or paralysis. Unfortunately, spinal cord stimulation also doesn’t work for all patients.
Talk with a Specialist about Spinal Cord Stimulation for Pain
If surgeries and non-surgical treatments for chronic pain in the back, neck, or legs have failed to provide relief, you may be a candidate for spinal cord stimulation. Likewise, if you suffer from neuropathy or radiculopathy and all conservative treatments have failed, an SCS may offer hope for less pain in the future.
Dr. Alen A. Nourian is one of Southern California’s most respected and accomplished orthopedic surgeons, specializing in the neck and spine. He sees patients in Beverly Hills, Encino, Thousand Oaks, Rancho Cucamonga, West Covina, and Moorpark.