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Using an Implanted Spinal Cord Stimulator to Relieve Chronic Back Pain

written by: R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 6/19/2010

Chronic back pain is a common complaint in America. Read on to learn more about a spinal cord stimulator for back pain.

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    The purpose of spinal cord stimulation is to help alleviate chronic lower back pain, as well as arm and leg pain that is caused by spinal diseases, conditions, and disorders. Millions of Americans suffer from chronic back pain. To help relieve their pain, they take powerful medications, significantly alter their lifestyle, wear braces, go through injections, and some go through surgery. All of these options can be effective, but the long-term effects are often unpleasant to say the least. Using a spinal cord stimulator for back pain allows many patients to stop all current treatment methods while being able to live a normal life again.

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    How Does Spinal Cord Stimulation Work?

    spinal cord stimulator for back pain A device implanted under the skin puts out small electrical currents to areas of the spine involved in pain. Exactly how this works to relieve pain is not completely known, but electrical impulses given off by the stimulator interfere with the electrical transmission of pain signals to the brain. This results in the relief of back pain. The pain is replaced with a pleasant tingling sensation, which blocks the brain's ability to feel pain in the areas being stimulated. The electrical impulse can be adjusted as pain gets better or worse, and it can be targeted to particular locations.

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    How is the Device Implanted?

    This device is usually implanted using a sedative and local anesthetic. This means patients will be awake, but very calm and the area will be completely numbed. Before a permanent stimulator is put in, all patients will have a trial stimulator to determine whether or not the device will be effective. If the device works well for the patient, a more permanent spinal cord stimulator for back pain will be implanted under the skin in the abdominal area. Coated, small wires are then inserted under the skin and directly into the spinal canal. The batteries need to be replaced every two to five years.

    Once implantation is complete, the best pulse strength will be determined and applied. Most patients will then use this device three to four times a day, for one to two hours at a time, as discussed with a doctor.

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    How Effective are Spinal Cord Stimulators?

    Spinal cord stimulation is still a relatively new option for back pain so further testing needs to be done to obtain hard facts and figures. However, it has been reported that more than half of the patients using this back pain relief method for peripheral neuropathy, failed-back surgery syndrome, and phantom limb pain have experienced pain relief, or at least a decrease in their pain. Though, much more research is needed to prove the effectiveness of spinal cord stimulation for back pain, a long-term study does suggest that certain conditions are likely to benefit long-term from having spinal cord stimulation. These conditions include reflex sympathetic dystrophy, peripheral artery disease, multiple sclerosis, failed-back surgery syndrome, and peripheral neuropathy.

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    What are the Possible Side Effects and Risks?

    There are a few side effects and risks associated with spinal cord stimulation, most of which are related to the implantation of the device, the device itself, and having the device inside the body and spinal canal. These possible side effects and risks can include:

    • Scar tissue that develops around the electrode
    • Hardware failure or electrode breakage
    • Spinal fluid leakage
    • Bladder problems
    • Pain that gradually travels beyond how far the nerve stimulator can reach
    • Infection
    • Headache
    • Getting used to the stimulation which can result in it being less effective
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    Resources

    Rhodes, K.M. MS. (2009). Spinal Cord Stimulation for Chronic Pain. Retrieved on June 15, 2010 from WedMD: http://www.webmd.com/back-pain/spinal-cord-stimulation-for-low-back-pain

    Laino, C. (2010). Spinal Cord Stimulation May Help Relieve Back Pain: Presented at APS. Retrieved on June 15, 2010 from Doctor's Guide: http://www.docguide.com/news/content.nsf/news/852576140048867C852577240056FBC4

    Bernstein, C.A., MD. (2010). Spinal Cord Stimulation for the Control of Chronic Back Pain. Retrieved on June 15, 2010 from Spine Universe: http://www.spineuniverse.com/treatments/pain-management/spinal-cord-stimulation-control-chronic-back-pain

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    Image Credits

    Spinal Cord Stimulator Visual: Hubimg.com