Spinal Cord Stimulation – A Compelling Treatment Alternative for Chronic Pain

What Is Spinal Cord Stimulation?

Spinal cord stimulation is a neuromodulation technique that is used to treat various types of chronic pain. Neuromodulation is a pain management therapy that uses electrical signals delivered by an implanted device to alter nerve activity in specific parts of the body in order to reduce pain. Similar to the way a pacemaker corrects an abnormal heartbeat, a neuromodulation device can establish neurological balance that may help reduce symptoms associated with pain.

The field of neuromodulation has developed rapidly since the first implantable spinal cord stimulator device was used to treat pain in 1967. A specialized pain management doctor can implant the transmitter device through a minimally invasive surgery. Physicians who have specific training in neuromodulation techniques have reduced complications and adverse events associated with this procedure. For this reason, it is vital that patients carefully choose a board certified pain specialist with expertise in neuromodulation before committing to any therapy.

Newer spinal cord stimulation devices and technologies have resulted in improved outcomes. The treatment involves placing electrodes next to a specific spinal area presumed to be the source of pain. These, in turn, provide an electric current which achieves the neuromodulatory effects that relieve pain.

Any patient who is considered a good candidate for spinal cord stimulation therapy must go through a thorough screening process before undergoing the procedure. This includes:

  • In-depth history and physical examination to assess for medical conditions that increase the risk that the treatment will either fail or create complications
  • Routine laboratory evaluation (determined based on the patient’s medical history and the type of anesthesia that will be used during the implantation procedure)
  • Relevant spine imaging studies (for example, X-ray films, CT and MRI scans) to assess the potential for technical difficulties that could arise during the procedure and to identify those patients for whom surgery may be a more appropriate treatment
  • Psychological screening (often required by insurance companies for approval of payment)
  • For patients with cardiac issues, a consultation with a cardiologist as well as a compatibility test

Despite this careful selection process, some patients will not achieve optimal pain relief with spinal cord stimulation. Most often, this is due to factors such as lifestyle (for example, preexisting tobacco or drug use), age or a lengthy delay between the first appearance of pain symptoms and device implantation.

What Patients Need to Know About the Spinal Cord Stimulation Process

First, a patient who is a good candidate for neuromodulation therapy is given a trial of the treatment. This trial tests the effectiveness of pain control and the patient’s tolerability to the device before it is permanently implanted.

During the trial period, which typically lasts three to seven days, temporary leads are placed via needle and connected by an extension cable to an external generator. A trial is considered successful when it results in pain relief of at least 50% accompanied by an improvement in function.

After the trial period, the leads are removed and the permanent implantation is performed at a later date (typically, two to four weeks later, to make sure there is no evidence of infection). A small incision is made during the implantation surgery. About a week after the implantation, a patient will return the office so that the healthcare team can monitor the healing process and review the settings of the device. Initially, most spinal cord stimulators need slight adjustments in the first few weeks after implantation, but the settings are often stable thereafter.

Spinal cord stimulation is a compelling treatment alternative for patients with chronic pain who have failed conservative treatment approaches. While it may not be effective for all types of pain or for every patient, spinal cord stimulation is a safe, drug-free and cost-effective treatment for many chronic pain conditions.


Image - Photo of Vladimir N. Kramskiy, MD
Vladimir N. Kramskiy, MD

Assistant Attending Neurologist, Hospital for Special Surgery
Clinical Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medical College


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