How Spinal Cord Stimulation Works, the Effectiveness, the Risks & Complications and Other Considerations

Medical Diagram of the Spinal CordChronic pain, for some people, becomes a feature of everyday life. When pain persists beyond the expected time, for example as a result of complex regional pain syndrome or failed back surgery syndrome, it can be extremely difficult to treat. One method that works for some suffers of chronic pain is spinal cord stimulation, or SCS, which uses an electrical current to the spine to interfere with the nerve impulses that are causing the pain.

How Does Spinal Cord Stimulation Work?

SPS is no magic cure for everyone’s pain, but it does work for some people. Many patients report a 50-70% reduction in pain, at least at first. Your doctor will usually start you with a temporary stimulator inserted through the skin to test its effect before implanting the permanent device. If the trial is successful, the permanent stimulator will be surgically implanted in the abdomen, with the small wires inserted into the spinal canal. You will then be able to experiment with different pulse strengths to see which works best. Typically, you will use the stimulator for one or two hours three to four times per day.

The spinal cord stimulator works by substituting a tingling sensation for the pain you have been experiencing. Pain signals travel up the spinal cord to the brain. The generator of the device sends pulses through the wires to nerves along the spinal cord, which block the pain signals, preventing them from reaching the brain, substituting tingling for pain.

How Effective is SCS?

In some patients, a spinal cord stimulator works for a while and then becomes less effective over time as the body builds tolerance to it.

Spinal Cord Stimulator Risks and Complications

In addition to loss of effectiveness, there are some potential risks to using a spinal cord stimulator:

  • Scar tissue at the site of the electrode
  • Infection
  • Headache
  • Leaking spinal fluid
  • Bladder problems
  • Pain that spreads beyond the reach of the stimulator
  • Equipment failure or breakage
  • Paralysis

Additional Considerations of SCS

There are also some inconveniences you need to be aware of:

  • The back stimulator can set off anti-theft devices in stores
  • It needs to be turned off while flying during take-off and landing
  • Its magnet can damage cards, cassettes, and computer disks
  • You can’t have an MRI
  • The stimulator needs to be turned off while driving

Clearly nerve stimulation is no cure-all for chronic pain. You need to carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages and work with your doctor to make an educated decision on whether it is something you want to try.

If you have developed a chronic pain condition such as complex regional pain syndrome or failed back surgery syndrome as a result of an accident that was caused by someone else’s careless or negligent act, you may have a claim to recover money to compensate you for your losses. These might include medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and diminished quality of life. A chronic condition requires long-term medical care and may permanently affect your ability to earn a living and do the things you enjoy.

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Jim Dodson
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A Florida injury lawyer, family man and avid cyclist who clients have trusted for over 25 years.