Skip to main content

What is on your mind?

Back pain is a condition that varies widely between patients. Everybody has a unique set of causes and symptoms, therefore everybody may respond differently to treatment. Luckily, there are a lot of treatment options available – particularly spinal cord stimulation for back pain.

Growing quickly in popularity, spinal cord stimulation is a technique that consists of altering pain signaling in your spinal cord. Spinal cord stimulation has proven effective for many patients with back pain, so it’s advisable to find out whether it may be right for you.

What follows is an overview of the treatment, as well as advice on how to decide whether using spinal cord stimulation for your back is worth it. You can use this information to form questions for your doctor.

About Spinal Cord Stimulation

The first step in understanding why surgeons use spinal cord stimulation for back pain is to gain a general understanding of how the nervous system works. The nervous system, which includes the brain and the spinal cord, contains billions of cells that communicate with each other using electrical impulses. The electrical impulses can transmit all kinds of information to the brain, including pain.

Several decades ago, medical researchers found that if they used a machine to send electrical impulses to the spinal cord, they could disrupt pain signaling to the brain. After years of testing and refinement, spinal cord stimulation for back pain was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1989.

Procedure Overview

The procedure itself includes several important steps. First, local anesthesia will be administered to the affected area of the spine, so that you will be comfortable throughout the operation. Your surgeon will then guide small wires with electrodes to the affected 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 you and your doctor confirm the appropriate location, the electrodes will be connected to an external generator that sends electrical pulses.

When the operation is finished and you have rested and recovered, you will be allowed to return home. During the next week or so, 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. At the end of the week-long trial, your physician will remove the electrodes in the office. If, after evaluating your experience, you and your doctor find that it was effective in relieving your pain, then you can have a spinal cord system permanently implanted. This is also generally done as an outpatient procedure.

What Qualifies a Patient for Spinal Cord Stimulation?

Spinal cord stimulation for back pain is an effective treatment, but it isn’t for everybody. There are certain conditions that must be met for you to be eligible for spinal cord stimulation.

First, it’s necessary to have tried conservative treatments. Many patients are able to manage or relieve their back pain using some combination of conservative treatments, such as physical therapy, chiropractic intervention and pain medication. You and your doctor might also consider surgery. For example, if the cause of your back pain is found to be a resolvable mechanical issue, it may be in your best interest to undergo surgery.

However, if neither conservative treatment nor surgery have brought you the relief you seek, you may want to discuss spinal cord stimulation for back pain with your doctor.

Comparing Different Types of Stimulation

Spinal cord stimulation for back pain comes in two forms: tonic spinal cord stimulation and high-frequency spinal cord stimulation. Here is some information on their differences so that you can make the best possible decision.

Tonic Spinal Cord Stimulation

Tonic spinal cord stimulation, also known as traditional or low-frequency spinal cord stimulation, is the most common variant of spinal cord stimulation for back pain. It has proven effective in many cases, but it often comes with a side effect known as stimulation paresthesia. Stimulation paresthesia is the name given to the tingling and buzzing sensation that many patients report while their pulse generator is activated. The tingling and buzzing usually mask the pain, but some patients report the experience as unpleasant.

High-Frequency Spinal Cord Stimulation

High-frequency spinal cord stimulation for back pain, on the other hand, does not cause stimulation paresthesia. Like tonic spinal cord stimulation, it can relieve back pain, but it involves no tingling and buzzing. High-frequency spinal cord stimulation is generally a more effective treatment than tonic spinal cord stimulation, but some patients may find that the latter works better for them. For this reason, it’s important to be observant during your trial period. If you find that one of the two types doesn’t work well for you, you can simply switch and do a trial with the other.

Recap: Is It Worth It?

All of the information in this article is centered around one question: Is spinal cord stimulation for back pain worth it? If you are a patient whose back pain has not responded well to conservative treatments or surgery, the answer is probably yes. Remember, though, that the decision to use spinal cord stimulation for back pain is made on a case-by-case basis. You should use this article to form questions for your doctor so that you two may make the best possible choice for your treatment.

spinal cord stimulation surgeon