Chronic neck pain is not just a significant physical setback, but a frustrating (and even confusing experience) as well. If you’re one of many people dealing with chronic neck pain that persists through conservative treatments, remember that you have additional options.
Due to recent advancements in medical technology, spinal cord stimulation has emerged as an effective and popular choice for those seeking relief from their chronic neck pain. What follows is an overview of spinal cord stimulation for neck pain and how to decide if it’s the right choice for you.
About Spinal Cord Stimulation
To understand how spinal cord stimulation works, it’s important first to understand how the nervous system sends and receives pain signals. The nervous system, which includes the brain and the spinal cord, is made up of billions of interconnected cells called neurons. Neurons communicate with each other by sending electrical impulses.
Many years ago, doctors found that if they used a machine to direct electrical impulses to neurons in the spinal cord, they could interrupt pain signaling before it reached the brain and thus alleviate their patients’ symptoms. Spinal cord stimulation was first approved for pain treatment by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1989, and has been undergoing improvements ever since.
The current process of spinal cord stimulation for neck pain is as follows. First, local anesthesia will be applied to the area of the spine in which your surgeon plans to operate. Then your surgeon will guide electrodes to that area using an X-ray. The electrodes will be activated and you will be asked to provide feedback on your pain to determine exactly where they should be placed. When the location has been confirmed, the electrodes will be connected to an external, handheld device that sends electrical pulses.
Once the operation is finished and you have rested and recovered, you will be allowed to return home. During the following five to seven days, your doctor will ask that you record your pain levels in different situations and at different times of the day to determine how well the spinal cord stimulation is working. After the trial, the electrodes are removed in the office. If, after evaluating your experience, you and your doctor find that you benefitted from the stimulation, then you will return to your surgeon to have a spinal cord stimulator system permanently implanted.
Is Spinal Cord Stimulation Right for Me?
The next step after gathering information about spinal cord stimulation for neck pain is to decide whether it’s the right treatment option for you. This is a decision you should make with your doctor, after careful consideration of your condition and all of the other options available to you. Here is an overview of those options. You should use this information to form questions for your doctor.
First Step: Pain Management Treatments
When treating patients with neck pain, doctors typically prescribe conservative options first. These include pain medication, steroid injections and physical therapy.
Pain medication prescriptions commonly consist of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen. They can be effective in the short term, but doctors don’t usually prescribe them for persistent, long-term pain due to their side effects.
Steroid injections are similar. Because neck pain is often the result of inflammation around spinal nerves, strong anti-inflammatory compounds like steroids can be effective short-term treatments when injected directly into the affected area. However, they may not be reliable long-term options because of their side effects.
Physical therapy is another conservative treatment that many doctors prescribe for neck pain. Pain along the spine is often due to muscle weakness in the back and neck. By strengthening those muscles, it is possible to reduce the strain placed on the spine and thus relieve pain and discomfort. Doctors may prescribe some combination of the above three treatments to combat your neck pain.
Low-Frequency Stimulation and Why It Generally Doesn’t Help
If conservative treatments have not brought you the results you seek, you and your doctor may decide that spinal cord stimulation is the next best step. Generally speaking, there are two types of spinal cord stimulation for chronic neck pain: low-frequency stimulation and high-frequency stimulation.
Low-frequency spinal cord stimulation utilizes “stimulation paresthesias”, which are pleasant electrical sensations that the patient is able to feel, to block the pain signals. Although low-frequency spinal cord stimulation can be effective for low back, arm, and leg pain, it is generally ineffective for neck pain.
High-Frequency Stimulation and Why It’s a Good Option
High-frequency stimulation, also known as “paresthesia-free stimulation,” relies on a type of electrical current that patients cannot feel. Therefore, it alleviates pain while also avoiding the tingling and buzzing that many patients report as unpleasant.
One particular form of high-frequency electrical stimulation, known as HF-10 therapy, has recently been shown to be effective in treating neck pain. This makes high-frequency spinal cord stimulation an attractive option for patients whose pain has resisted conservative treatment.
It goes without saying that neck pain can be an inconvenient and frustrating experience. Keep in mind, however, that there are many options for treating it, even if it resists conservative treatments. Among those who are not strong candidates for surgery, high-frequency spinal cord stimulation for neck pain has been shown to be an effective treatment for chronic neck pain. If you think you might be a good candidate for high-frequency spinal cord stimulation, talk with your doctor.