If you suffer from chronic back or neck pain that has not been relieved by surgery or other therapies, spinal cord stimulation may be another option. Also known as neurostimulation, or SCS, this non-drug therapy modifies or blocks nerve activity to relieve pain. Here’s what you need to know about spinal cord stimulation, courtesy of neurosurgeon Dr. Adam Smith at the Rocky Mountain Brain & Spine Institute.
What is Spinal Cord Stimulation?
SCS has been used to treat pain since the late 1960s. A small paddle or electrodes are placed over the spinal cord. This is then connected to a small generator similar to a heart pacemaker, that delivers mild electrical impulses to the nerves in the spinal cord. The device and wires are implanted using a minimally invasive technique. SCS is used for patients who have had back surgery but still have pain (failed back surgery syndrome), chronic pain in the neck and lower back (cervical and lumbar radiculitis) and nerve damage (neuropathy). This treatment may also be useful in complex regional pain syndrome – pain that affects a limb, usually after an injury. One perk of this procedure is that the devices used have become smaller over time, making them less invasive, as well as compatible with MRI machines.
How Can I Find Out if it Works?
One thing that makes SCS different from most surgical treatment options is that it can be trialed ahead of time. The wires can be temporarily implanted with an external generator. If the trial is unsuccessful, the leads are easily removed. If the trial is successful, however, the generator and wires can be permanently implanted. The trial is important, as SCS is one of those treatments that may not necessarily work for all patients. When selecting a doctor, ask how many patients who receive an SCS trial go on to have the device implanted. If the percentage is high, it means the doctor is skilled in selecting patients who will benefit from the procedure. The trial procedure takes about an hour to implant and then lasts for about five days to see if it is successful. A full implant takes about two hours to perform and you may go home the same day.
How Effective is the Treatment?
For people where SCS has been successful, typically report that their pain is reduced by at least 50 percent. Most people can take less opioid (narcotic) pain medications and have improved function. SCS doesn’t improve muscle strength or relieve numbness, but by relieving pain, it may allow you to exercise and strengthen your muscles. Nor does it eliminate the actual source of the pain, although decreased pain can allow you to perform more of your daily activities. SCS does not prevent you from possibly needing other spine surgeries in the future.
If you’re dealing with chronic pain that affects your life, SCS may help. Please contact us for questions or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Smith.