Intrathecal Pump

If your cancer pain or other chronic pain isn’t easily controlled, you may benefit from an intrathecal pump. An intrathecal pump, also called a pain pump, is implanted under your skin. It delivers pain medicine right to your spinal cord. This means you will need a much smaller dose to control pain than if you took the same medicine by mouth. This helps make the medication more effective. It also means you'll have fewer side effects. 

At UVA, our pain management specialists partner with you to explore if an intrathecal pump makes sense for your treatment. We're dedicated to bringing you relief from your chronic or cancer-related pain.

What Does an Intrathecal Pump Do?

An intrathecal pump can control pain from:

  • Cancer or cancer treatment
  • Failed back surgery (post-laminectomy syndrome)
  • Nerve pain from nerve damage 
  • Complex regional pain syndrome
  • Chronic pancreas swelling (pancreatitis)
  • Chronic pain that isn’t relieved with other treatment

Intrathecal pumps can also relieve movement problems (spasticity) caused by:

  • Strokes
  • Brain or spine injuries
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Cerebral palsy

The pain pump lives under your skin in your lower abdomen. A small tube (catheter) connected to the pump is placed inside the space around your spinal cord (intrathecal space).

The pump is filled with pain medicine. It’s programmed to send it into the intrathecal space. The medicine reaches your spine and nerves that branch from it. This helps control your pain symptoms.

Should I Get a Pain Pump?

Not everyone is a good candidate for an intrathecal pump. You’ll be considered for a pump if:

  • Your pain isn’t relieved when taking pain medicine by mouth or by injection
  • You wouldn’t benefit from surgery for the pain
  • You need regular pain medicine
  • You respond well to the dose the pump delivers during the trial

Implanting an Intrathecal Pump

Before you get an intrathecal pump, we’ll test the dose of medicine used. You may need to stay in the hospital for this.

During the implant procedure, you will get anesthesia. We make a small incision in your back and your abdomen to place this device. The pump is about the size of a hockey puck and will be placed in your abdomen. The pump is filled with medicine and connected to the catheter.

You might need to limit your activity for a short time as you heal after the surgery. You’ll also need to wear an elastic brace to keep the pump in place as you heal.

Living With Your Pain Pump

Tell your doctor right away if you feel unusual symptoms or think you’re getting too much medicine. Also, call if you hear your pump beeping. The battery might need replacing, or it may be out of medicine.

You’ll get a special card that identifies you as having this implant. You’ll need this when passing through metal detectors. The metal detectors will respond to the pump.

You’ll have regular follow-up appointments at the pain clinic to manage the pump. We’ll adjust it to get the dose of pain medicine just right.  We also refill your pump during these visits.