What is it?

Sensory nerves in your body pick up pain signals and send them to your brain. Spinal cord stimulation uses mild electrical pulses to block or scramble those nerve signals as they travel through the spinal cord. Your brain doesn’t get the message, so you won’t feel the full force of the pain

Why is it done?

This treatment is typically done for people with severe, chronic pain who:

  • Have pain from a nerve problem.
  • Have pain that does not respond to other treatments. This includes complex regional pain syndrome.
  • Have pain from severe peripheral vascular disease that the doctor feels cannot be treated with surgery
  • Have pain lasting three months or longer
  • Surgery won’t help or you can’t have surgery
  • Don’t have untreated drug addictions
  • Don’t have a pacemaker
  • Cleared a psychological evaluation
  • A successful trial

How is it done?

Spinal cord stimulation is done in two steps. Your doctor will first insert a temporary electrode through your skin. It will stay there for about a week. This first step is to see if the treatment will help your pain.

You and your doctor will test different stimulation settings and programs. Your doctor will ask you how you feel at different settings. Let your doctor know if you feel any discomfort.

You’ll use a wireless remote control or other controller.

If the test works, you may get a permanent stimulator. The electrode is implanted in your spine. A lead wire runs from your spine to a small generator. It can be under the skin in your lower or upper back, buttock area, chest, or belly area.

You may get medicine that relaxes you or puts you in a light sleep. Some people may need to have general anesthesia. The areas being worked on will be numb.

After the stimulator is placed, your doctor will show you how to care for the areas where you had surgery. Follow your doctor’s instructions. If you notice any signs of infection, call your doctor right away. These signs include pain, swelling, warmth or redness around the area, pus draining from the area, or a fever.

What happens during my spinal cord stimulation trial?

To test-run the device, your doctor inserts the lead wires along your spine, then attaches them to a portable generator worn around your waist. You’ll wear the device for about a week to see if it relieves your pain enough to implant a permanent generator.

What are the different types of spinal cord stimulators?

This treatment targets the area of your body where you feel pain. There are different types of devices you may get.

  • The devices can have different power sources.
    • Some generators have batteries that need to be replaced every 3 to 5 years. Some last longer.
    • Some have rechargeable batteries. A special wireless charger may come with your system. These last much longer. But they still may need to be replaced at some point.
    • Some stimulators may have a power source outside your body. These are more often for short-term use.
  • The leads that carry the electrical current can be placed at different spots along the spinal cord.
  • You will have a controller to program the device. Your doctor will show you how to use it.

What are the risks?

There are some risks to spinal cord stimulation. For example:

  • Placing the stimulator requires surgery. Surgery has risks, such as the risk of bleeding, infection, or fluid buildup at the surgical site. Anesthesia also has some risks.
  • The stimulator device and wires can fail. The wires may also move, so the stimulator doesn’t work as well as it should.
  • The tingling or warm feeling from the electrical current may bother you. You may need the device removed if it bothers you too much.
  • If you build up a tolerance to the stimulation, your doctor may need to change the amount of current or placement of the wires.
  • Your pain may come back, and the device may no longer work for you.

How can you learn to live with a spinal cord stimulator?

You may have a spinal cord stimulator for many years. It can help you live with much less pain, but you will have to learn how to use it.

After the surgery, you and your doctor can figure out the best pulse strength. It may need to be adjusted a few times. Your doctor will show you how to use the stimulator at home.

You may feel a tingle or some warmth while you use electrical nerve stimulation.

Your doctor will show you how to be safe with a stimulator. This may include trying not to lift, bend, stretch, or twist too much. Being too active could move or disconnect the leads. Light exercise, such as walking, is good.

After a few weeks, you will be able to move more. You may get important instructions on driving and air travel, as well.

Your device may set off metal detectors. And anti-theft devices in stores can cause a burst of stimulation.

Be sure to tell other doctors about your stimulator before you have any other procedures or scans. Some scans and procedures can cause serious problems with your device.