Nerve pain, pain after surgery that won't go away, or other chronic pain you can’t control stops you from fully enjoying life. If your pain is affecting your day-to-day life and isn’t relieved with other treatments, a spinal cord stimulator may help.
At UVA, our pain management specialists can help you with stubborn pain. If you need a spinal cord stimulator, we're with you through every step of the process. And we'll help you dial in relief afterward.
What Does a Spinal Cord Stimulator Do?
Spinal cord stimulators don’t cure what causes your pain. Instead, they help you feel less pain. It’s part of your overall treatment plan. You’ll use it along with other treatments, like medicine or physical therapy. It may even help you reduce your medications.
Spinal cord stimulators help with pain from:
- Cancer or cancer treatment
- Injury to your spinal cord
- Swelling or damage in your nerves
- Pinched nerve (radiculopathy)
- Failed back surgery or other pain after surgery
- Complex regional pain syndrome
- Heart or peripheral vascular disease not controlled with other treatment
A spinal cord stimulator blocks pain by sending low levels of electricity to your spine and nerves. This changes the way you feel that pain. Traditionally, spinal cord stimulators make pain feel like light tingling. Some devices can make it so that you don’t feel that sensation at all.
There are two parts to a spinal cord stimulator:
- Thin wires, also called electrodes or leads, are put into the space (epidural space) between the spinal cord and the bones (vertebrae) that surround it.
- The generator is a battery pack that holds the electricity and sends it to your spine. It’s placed in your lower back, under your skin.
You’ll also get a remote to control the stimulator. When you feel pain, you use the remote to send electric pulses to your spine. That reduces your pain.
Should I Get a Spinal Cord Stimulator?
Spinal cord stimulators are an option if your pain:
- Isn’t controlled with medicine
- Other procedures or surgery won’t help relieve it
- You don’t have other conditions that prevent you from getting one
Implanting the Spinal Cord Stimulator
Getting a stimulator involves two steps. The first step is a temporary trial to see if it will help control your pain. If the stimulator helped with your pain during the trial, the second step makes the stimulator permanent.
The first procedure is a test to see how you respond to the stimulator. You’ll have temporary leads put in percutaneously in your lower back. These wires are connected to a generator that lives outside of your body. You’ll wear the stimulator for a few days.
We’ll track how you use the stimulator and what works to relieve pain. The wires can be easily removed at the end of the trial.
If you respond well, the second procedure is the permanent implant. We replace the test wires with permanent ones. We also implant a generator under your skin in your back below your waist.
You can go home the same day of your surgery. You’ll need to limit some activities for a few weeks while you heal.
The device representative, along with our team, will train you on using your stimulator to best relieve your pain. Moving, sitting, and other body positions will need different levels of intensity from your stimulator.
Living With a Spinal Cord Stimulator
Over time and with help from your doctor, you’ll find the right settings to best control your pain throughout the day. Different activities and body positions will need different amounts of electricity. You can program the remote with different settings for relief.
You’ll get an Implanted Device card. Keep the card with you to travel. When traveling, your stimulator will be picked up at security gates with metal detectors. Metal detectors and anti-theft detectors in stores may affect how your stimulator works. You might feel these changes. It’s temporary, but you might want to turn the stimulator off when going through these security gates.
You should also turn off your stimulator when driving. The feeling can be distracting.