Back pain can turn your life upside down — especially when you can’t find a treatment that helps. Whether your pain was the sudden result of an injury or it’s been brewing for a long time, you need to find a solution. And spinal cord stimulation could be just the answer you’ve been looking for.
Our goal at Southern Pain Specialists is to help get your pain under control by offering a variety of different treatment modalities. Our pain management specialist, Dr. Kenneth Varley, assesses back pain and can help you determine if spinal cord stimulation is the right option for you.
Understanding spinal cord stimulation
A spinal cord stimulator is a device that’s implanted in your back to help lessen your pain through electrical stimulation. The electrical stimulation is delivered straight to your spinal cord, which is where pain signals are sent to your brain.
Although why this type of treatment works isn’t completely understood, the theory is that the electrical impulses replace the sensation of pain and change how your brain perceives that sensation.
The spinal cord stimulator consists of tiny electrodes attached to a battery, or pulse generator. Dr. Varley places the electrodes into your epidural space, which is the area between your vertebrae and spinal cord.
The pulse generator is surgically implanted beneath your skin, usually in your buttocks or abdomen. It’s placed there because you generally have more padding in this area.
There are two different types of spinal cord stimulation: those that use paresthesia to cover your pain and those that are paresthesia-free. The paresthesia-free stimulators are also known as sub-perception spinal cord stimulation.
The paresthesia that you feel with traditional spinal cord stimulation simply feels like slight tingling in your back, legs, or arms. Sub-perception stimulation occurs when the electrical stimulation is so fast that your brain can’t perceive the impulses. All you feel is less pain.
You’re able to control the stimulator with a remote control device. This allows you to flip through multiple settings to give you the pain relief you need.
When spinal cord stimulation can help
When you’re dealing with back pain that’s interfering with your life, Dr. Varley determines your treatment options based on your symptoms along with imaging studies such as an X-ray or MRI. This helps him determine if your vertebrae or discs are causing your pain.
While spinal cord stimulation is a great option for chronic pain, it’s usually not used as the first line of treatment because it’s a surgical procedure. Dr. Varley often recommends conservative treatment options first:
- Physical therapy
- Ice or heat
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Corticosteroid injections
For some people, these treatments are enough to get their pain under control so they can get back to their lives. However, if you’ve tried these treatments and are still suffering from back pain, spinal cord stimulation might be the next step in your treatment plan.
This is especially true if you’re suffering from conditions like a spinal cord injury or a nerve condition like peripheral neuropathy. These conditions are difficult to treat due to nerve involvement, which is why spinal cord stimulation is a good choice. In most cases, the benefits of spinal cord stimulation outweigh the risks of undergoing surgery.
What if you’ve already had back surgery and it has failed to provide you significant relief? Dr. Varley also uses spinal cord stimulation for post-surgical pain, which can be related to the procedure itself or pain that the procedure failed to make better.