Spinal Cord Stimulator

What Is a Spinal Cord Stimulator?

Nerves transmit pain signals to the brain. Spinal cord stimulators are implanted devices that block those signals.

Although unpleasant, in many cases pain is a useful signal that there’s danger or something is wrong. However, when pain lasts longer than the injury or problem, it outlives its usefulness and becomes chronic.

There are many sources of chronic pain, but if it stems from the spinal cord, a spinal cord stimulator may give relief.

How does a spinal cord stimulator work?

A spinal cord stimulator blocks nerve pain by sending an electrical signal to interfere with the nerve signals. A spinal cord stimulator has three parts. Electrodes go between vertebrae, a generator implanted elsewhere in the body supplies power and delivers the signal to the electrodes, and a remote control allows the patient to turn the signal on and off when he or she feels pain.

In most models of spinal cord stimulator, the pain is replaced by a tingling sensation called paresthesia. Newer types of stimulators can be sensation-free, however, meaning no pain and no paresthesia.

What Does a Spinal Cord Stimulator Treat?

Spinal cord stimulators treat pain stemming from the spinal cord. Conditions can include:

A spinal cord injury can also treat non-spine conditions such as chest pain (angina), peripheral vascular disease and multiple sclerosis.

Who Is a Candidate for a Spinal Cord Stimulator?

A candidate for a spinal cord stimulator is someone who has tried other methods to relieve the pain without success. Many people consider surgery to be a treatment of last resort, but a spinal cord stimulator is one of the best treatments for pain that hasn’t responded to surgery.

Candidates for spinal cord stimulators may need to undergo a psychological screening to ensure they do not have untreated depression or anxiety, which may add to chronic pain. They will also have imaging tests done to ensure a spinal cord stimulator is a viable treatment option with the potential to help.

How Is a Spinal Cord Stimulator Implanted?

Spinal cord stimulator surgery is performed in two phases. The first is the trial phase. This is a temporary period, and as such the surgery is simpler. Instead of implanting the generator into the body, it is worn on the outside; only the electrodes are implanted. This phase lasts for about a week.

If the trial is successful—a 50 percent (or more) reduction in pain—a permanent implantation surgery will be scheduled. The permanent implantation is a minimally invasive outpatient procedure that puts the generator under the skin and sutures the electrodes. It usually takes about one to two hours.

What Is Spinal Cord Stimulator Surgery Recovery Like?

Spinal cord stimulator surgery is an outpatient procedure, meaning no hospital stay is necessary. The incisions may be painful for a few days after surgery, but the pain will subside shortly. Incisions will fully heal in about two to four weeks.  

Most people will be advised to keep activity light for the first two or so weeks after surgery, and then they can resume regular activities, including driving.

X-rays and CT scans are safe for people with spinal cord stimulators, but MRIs, for the most part, are not. Newer stimulator models do allow people to go into MRI machines. 

If you are troubled by chronic pain that has not been helped by conservative measures or surgery, a spinal cord stimulator may be right for you. Request an appointment at Edison Spine Center to learn more.