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How Does A Spinal Cord Stimulator Work?

Have you ever considered how contemporary medical advances enable us to overcome difficult challenges? In 2021, an estimated 21% of adults in the US experienced chronic pain. Additionally, 6.9% of adults experienced high-impact chronic pain. Thanks to modern technology, chronic pain sufferers can enjoy some relief.

One of the most promising innovations is the spinal cord stimulator (SCS), a remarkable device designed to alleviate chronic pain. Want to know how the spinal cord simulator works? 

In this post, we’ll delve into the fascinating world of spinal cord stimulators, looking at how they work and what they might be able to accomplish for you.

What Is a Spinal Cord Stimulator?

Consider the possibility of having a gadget that may give electrical signals to your spinal cord, interrupting pain signals and replacing them with calming sensations. A spinal cord stimulator accomplishes just that.

It is a small implantable device that is surgically inserted beneath the skin and connected to the spinal cord. By sending electrical impulses to the spinal cord, the stimulator intercepts pain signals before they reach the brain. This offers the much-needed respite to patients suffering from chronic pain.

Understanding Chronic Pain

Chronic pain lasts for a long period, generally more than three months, in contrast to acute pain, which typically subsides when the underlying cause of the pain resolves. Conditions including failed back surgery syndrome, neuropathy, and complicated regional pain syndrome can all lead to chronic pain.

A picture representing chronic pain.

What effect does chronic pain have on the body, then? Your nerves send signals of pain to your brain when you are injured or ill, alerting you to the problem. Chronic pain continues to be sent by these pain receptors even after the initial illness or damage has healed. Your quality of life may be greatly impacted by this constant signaling, which can be quite upsetting.

Addressing Chronic Pain with Spinal Cord Stimulators

Spinal cord stimulators are implantable devices that offer a potential solution for individuals who have exhausted other treatment options without finding relief from their chronic pain. Let’s explore how these devices function and the process involved.

Trial Period

Before opting for a permanent implant, patients undergo a trial period to assess the effectiveness of the spinal cord stimulator. During this trial, a temporary lead is placed near the spinal cord, and the patient receives mild electrical pulses that interfere with the pain signals.

The Placement of Leads

To initiate the spinal cord stimulation process, the first step is to implant tiny wires, known as leads, into the epidural space near the spinal cord. The leads are carefully threaded through a needle and positioned precisely at the desired location. The placement of leads is typically done during a minimally invasive procedure under local anesthesia.

The Role of the Pulse Generator

Once the leads are in place, a tiny battery-powered device known as a pulse generator is implanted beneath the skin, often in the lower belly or buttocks. The pulse generator sends electrical pulses to the spinal cord through thin, insulated wires linked to the leads.

Programming and Customization

After surgery, the programming phase begins. A pain management specialist often works closely with the patient. The specialist customizes the settings of the spinal cord stimulator to optimize pain relief. This customization ensures that the electrical signals delivered by the device are tailored to the individual’s specific needs.

How Does the Spinal Cord Stimulator Work?

Now that we understand the basic setup, let’s explore how spinal cord stimulators actually work to alleviate chronic pain.

Gate Control Theory

The Gate Control Theory, established by Melzack and Wall in 1965, is one of the fundamental processes at work. The transmission of pain signals, according to this idea, may be regulated by stimulating non-painful sensory inputs, thus closing the “gate” to the pain experience. The electrical pulses delivered by spinal cord stimulators stimulate sensory nerves, lowering the sense of pain.

Paresthesia-Based Stimulation

In some cases, spinal cord stimulation relies on paresthesia-based stimulation, where the electrical pulses cause a tingling or buzzing sensation (paresthesia) in the areas affected by chronic pain. This tingling sensation can mask or override the pain signals, providing relief to the individual.

Sub-perception Stimulation

Alternatively, newer models of spinal cord stimulators offer sub-perception stimulation, which means the electrical pulses are delivered at a level that is not consciously felt by the patient. Instead of producing paresthesia, these devices target the underlying pain pathways more directly. Sub-perception stimulation is especially useful for individuals who find paresthesia uncomfortable or disruptive.

How Does Neuromodulation Relieve Pain?

Neuromodulation is a procedure that helps stimulate specific nerves or parts of the brain with the purpose of reducing pain. The technique interrupts pain signals by targeting nerves and brain locations. 

Several studies have demonstrated the efficacy of neuromodulation in pain management. In one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers discovered that spinal cord stimulation reduced pain by 50% in patients suffering from chronic back pain. 

In another study, researchers discovered that deep brain stimulation relieved pain in patients suffering from cluster headaches. Neuromodulation affects the ways neurons connect with one another to accomplish these extraordinary results. Essentially, it electrically stimulates by using magnetic fields.

Benefits and Considerations

Spinal cord stimulators can offer significant benefits to individuals suffering from chronic pain, but it’s important to consider a few key points

Reduced Reliance on Medications

Spinal cord stimulators, by providing pain relief, might minimize reliance on opioid medicines, which can have side effects and hazards. This can be especially helpful for those wishing to reduce their reliance on medicine or explore alternatives to manage chronic pain.

Life Quality Improvement

Chronic pain can have a significant impact on one’s quality of life, negatively impacting both physical and emotional well-being. Spinal cord stimulators have the potential to boost mobility, engagement in everyday activities, and overall well-being.

A man doing yoga showing his improvement from a spinal cord stimulator

Personalization and Adaptability

One of the strengths of spinal cord stimulators lies in their customization options. The settings of the device can be adjusted to suit the changing needs of the individual, allowing for greater control and adaptability in pain management.

Who Can Benefit From A Spinal Cord Stimulator?

Stimulators are commonly used for conditions such as neuropathy, failed back surgery syndrome, complex regional pain syndrome, and peripheral vascular disease, among others.

SCS can be a viable option for individuals who have tried and failed other conservative treatments for chronic pain. It is often considered when medications and other interventions have not provided adequate relief or have caused unwanted side effects. Spinal Cord 

Final Thoughts

Living with chronic back pain is very challenging. However, there is hope thanks to advancements in medical technology. Spinal cord stimulators provide cutting-edge treatment to those suffering from chronic pain. These devices target the spinal cord and modulate the pain signals. This enables people suffering from chronic pain to reclaim control of their lives. However, for the treatment to be effective, consult our medical pain specialists.

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