Treating Pain with Spinal Cord Stimulators
Spinal cord stimulation is a way to manage various types of pain. A spinal cord stimulator
is an implanted device that sends low levels of electricity directly into the spinal
cord. Electrical stimulation is a more modern way to stimulate the nerves of muscles
to treat pain, and it's been used for more than 30 years. Other methods of this type
of stimulation are TENS (transcutaneous electrical stimulation) units, peripheral
nerve stimulation, and deep brain stimulation.
Spinal cord stimulators consist of electrodes, or leads, placed in the epidural space
around the spinal cord.
Today's spinal cord stimulators allow you to send the electrical impulses into the
spinal cord yourself. You use a small device like a remote control. Both the remote
control and its antenna are outside your body.
What is spinal cord stimulation used for?
Spinal cord stimulation may be used to treat or manage chronic pain caused by:
Back pain, especially back pain that continues even after back surgery (failed back
Heart pain (angina) untreatable by other means
Injuries to the spinal cord
Nerve-related pain (such as severe diabetic neuropathy)
Peripheral vascular disease
Complex regional pain syndrome
Pain after an amputation
Visceral abdominal pain and perineal pain
Spinal cord stimulation seems to be best at easing pain that comes with nerve-related
conditions causing pain of the legs or arms and conditions in which oxygen-rich blood
flow is limited.
Spinal cord stimulation can improve overall quality of life and reduce the need for
pain medicines. Exactly how spinal cord stimulation works to manage pain isn't well
understood. But researchers think it may affect the neurochemistry of the spinal cord.
Spinal cord stimulation technology
Spinal cord stimulators come in 3 main types:
Conventional implantable pulse generator, or IPG. A battery is placed in the spine
during an operation. When it runs out, the battery must be replaced in another surgery.
This can be a good choice for people with pain in just one body part because they
need less energy to manage their pain.
Rechargeable implantable pulse generator. A battery is placed in the spine during
an operation. You can recharge it without another surgery. Because the energy source
is rechargeable, these stimulators can put out more electricity. This may be a better
choice for people with pain in the lower back or in one or both legs. The device is
more powerful than conventional IPGs.
Radiofrequency stimulator. This type of stimulator is an older design. It uses a battery
that's outside the body. This stimulator is rarely used today because of newer designs
and better technology. This includes rechargeable batteries. But like the rechargeable
IPGs, these may be better for people with pain in the lower back and legs because
of the device's power.
With all 3 types of spinal cord stimulators, you control the level of electricity
sent to the spine to make the treatment work better.
Spinal cord stimulation is an expensive treatment that does involve risk because of
the major surgery needed to put the device in place. Spinal cord stimulation is usually
used along with other pain management treatment. These include medicines, exercise,
and relaxation methods. Spinal cord stimulation is used only when other pain management
methods haven't helped to ease your pain.