Spinal Cord Stimulation

A spinal cord stimulator implant is a treatment sometimes used to ease chronic back pain. It achieves its effects by sending a controlled electric pulse to the area surrounding your spinal cord and blocking pain signals before they reach your brain. Your doctor can program your spinal cord stimulator in ways that reflect your particular medical circumstances.

Spinal Cord Stimulator Implant Basics

Your doctor will typically implant a spinal cord stimulator in your buttocks or abdomen. The most commonly available stimulator units run on a long-lasting disposable battery that stays charged for anywhere from two to five years. Other units run on a battery that lasts for as long as 10 years and is recharged from outside your body. A third type of stimulator, called a radiofrequency stimulator, uses a lot of power and must run on an external energy source that you keep with you. The powered main body of a spinal stimulator sends electric pulses to your spine through a connected wire. At the other end of this wire, a grouping of electrodes—called a lead—sits in the space around your spinal cord and relays these electric pulses.

Depending on your needs, your doctor can fine-tune the number of pulses sent to the lead, the intensity of each pulse and the radius of the pulse’s effects. In some cases, doctors place the electrodes from a stimulator beneath the skin of the back and not near the spinal cord.

Before your doctor implants a spinal cord stimulator, he will use an external stimulator to make sure you respond well to this form of treatment. In addition to having a positive response to this test procedure, people who receive an implanted unit typically share common attributes that include chronic pain unaddressed by any other means, absence of an implanted pacemaker, lack of significant psychiatric or psychological issues and experience with a previous failed back surgery. They are also unlikely to benefit from any further major surgery and have pain that doesn’t stem from any form of cancer.

Spinal Cord Stimulator Implant Uses

People who receive spinal cord stimulator implants commonly have underlying pain causes that include sciatica, inflammation of a spinal cord membrane called the arachnoid membrane, multiple sclerosis, angina, a damaged spinal cord, damaged nerves or problems with an amputated limb. Other problems that can lead to stimulator implantation include a grouping of symptoms known collectively as failed back syndrome and a form of nerve-related pain known as complex regional pain syndrome.

Spinal Cord Stimulator Implant Benefits

Generally speaking, doctors consider a spinal cord stimulator implant a success if it relieves anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of pre-existing pain symptoms. However, even when relief doesn’t rise to this level, it is frequently significant enough to provide real improvements in your day-to-day life. People with severe pain symptoms may gain additional relief from a new generation of spinal cord stimulator leads, which are laid out in wider patterns than those commonly used today. If a spinal cord stimulator implant ultimately proves ineffective, you can typically get it removed with little risk of complications.

Spinal Cord Stimulator Implant Risks

Spinal cord stimulator implants come with risks that include over- or understimulation of your spinal cord, intermittent spinal cord stimulation, improper implantation of an electrode lead, detachment of an electrode lead, damage to an electrode lead and failure in the main stimulator unit. Risks common to stimulator implantation and other invasive back procedures include bleeding, worsening of your pre-existing symptoms, leakage of the fluid that protects the spinal cord, headaches, allergic responses, infections and muscle weakness. Back surgery also carries a risk for paralysis.