People experience chronic pain when their body’s normal response to a neck or back injury lasts longer than it should. While no longer protecting the body from injury, this persistent pain becomes lifestyle-altering in and of itself. If not properly treated, chronic pain can lead to other physical, mental, and emotional health problems, including medication overuse. As a newer therapy alternative, patients who are non-responsive to conventional chronic pain management treatments often find relief by undergoing spinal cord stimulation surgery.
What Is Spinal Cord Stimulation Surgery?
Nerve signals are transmitted constantly from the body to the brain. This process helps prevent an injury by notifying the person that something is wrong. When nerves get damaged, they sometimes send pain signals to the brain even though no injury is occurring.
Spinal cord stimulation (SCS) – also called “neuromodulation” – can be used to disguise those signals so that the brain no longer receives them. Spinal cord stimulation surgery is the procedure that’s used to implant the SCS device.
Once implanted, the stimulator delivers electrical impulses to electrodes placed over the spinal cord. Modified by the device’s pulses, the pain signals are either not perceived at all or are replaced by a tingling sensation.
Here’s how a spinal cord stimulator implant works:
Common Concerns About the Procedure
Like many other safe and effective surgical procedures, there is a lot of misinformation – including spinal cord stimulator horror stories – circulating the Internet. And although there are some permanent restrictions with a spinal cord stimulator, most patients enjoy a “new lease on life” while living virtually pain-free after undergoing spinal cord stimulation surgery.
To alleviate your concerns, these are some common questions that patients ask about spinal cord stimulation surgery:
What is the success rate of a spinal cord stimulator?
Presently, the long-term success rate of SCS ranges from 50 to 75%. Stimulation does not eliminate the source of pain, but rather simply changes the way the brain perceives it. For that reason, the amount of pain relief varies by patient.
In general, the goal for SCS is a 50 to 70% reduction in pain. In most cases, even a small amount of pain reduction can be a blessing by allowing the patient to engage in normal daily activities once again.
That said, stimulation does not work for everyone. Some patients find the tingling sensation to be unpleasant, while others don’t experience relief over the entire pain area. For these reasons, your doctor will start you out with a one-week trial period. If SCS is not right for you, the wires will be removed with no resulting damage to the spinal cord or nerves.
Is spinal cord stimulator surgery painful?
Determining if a spinal cord stimulator is the right choice for you requires a two-step process. First, you must undergo a temporary trial to determine if the stimulator reduces your pain level.
On the day of the procedure, a local anesthetic is applied to numb the area in your lower back. Using X-ray fluoroscopy, the surgeon will insert the trial lead into the epidural space and position it over specific nerves. The lead’s wires (electrode) are attached to an external generator worn on the belt.
Spinal cord stimulator surgery is not painful for the average patient, although you may experience some temporary discomfort over the final implant site.
Are you put to sleep for spinal cord stimulator surgery?
If your trial is successful (50% or greater improvement in pain relief), surgery can be scheduled to implant the SCS device (generator) in your body. This surgery typically takes one to two hours and does require that you be given light general anesthesia.
Who qualifies for a spinal cord stimulator?
To determine if you are a candidate for SCS, your doctor will evaluate your physical condition, medications, and pain history. They will also review all previous pain management treatments and surgeries. Because chronic pain can cause emotional effects, a psychologist will speak with you to help ensure that your procedure is successful.
Patients that qualify for stimulation therapy typically have chronic debilitating pain that has persisted for over three months in the lower back, leg (sciatica), or arm.
You may also be a candidate for an SCS procedure if:
- You have had one or more spinal surgeries.
- You don’t want to undergo nor would not benefit from another surgery.
- Conservative pain management therapies have failed.
- You have no medical conditions that would prevent you from undergoing implantation.
- You do not have untreated depression or drug addiction.
- Your SCS trial was successful.
Can a spinal stimulator cause paralysis?
Although they are possible as with any type of back or neck surgery, serious neurological complications including paralysis are rare with spinal cord stimulation surgery. For the average patient, SCS is a safe and reversible treatment option when other pain management therapies have failed.
How big is the incision for a spinal cord stimulator?
If your trial is successful, your surgeon will implant the permanent electrodes and generator by making two separate incisions about the length of a driver’s license – one incision along your abdomen or buttocks and the other along your spine.
How much does spinal cord stimulation surgery cost?
The price tag for both the spinal cord stimulator and the surgery itself depends on several factors, including the type of stimulator (there are rechargeable, and non-rechargeable options), the health of the patient, and the patient’s recovery needs.
Insurance is an essential factor, as Medicare and most private insurers cover SCS for patients that qualify. Depending on their circumstances, some patients may be required to pay out-of-pocket costs, although the amount is usually quite manageable.
Learn more about spinal cord stimulator surgery by watching this informative video.
Common Concerns About Recovery and Life Afterwards
If you qualify, here’s what to expect after spinal cord stimulation surgery:
How long is recovery after spinal cord stimulator surgery?
After undergoing an SCS procedure, most patients are discharged home the same day or the following morning. The recovery period is two to six weeks, during which time you will be required to follow specific care instructions from your surgeon.
Those instructions will include activity restrictions, pain management tips, proper incision site care, and how to operate the device. You will also need to schedule a follow-up appointment with your doctor so they can monitor your progress and answer any questions you might have.
Can you live a normal life with a spinal cord stimulator?
An SCS pulse generator has programmable settings that include frequency, pulse width, and pulse amplitude. The handheld programmer allows you to control various stimulator functions depending upon your pain relief needs.
You can use your stimulator throughout the day for specific activities, or around the clock. Cell phones, microwaves, security doors, anti-theft sensors, and similar electronic devices will not damage your stimulator. However, some security and anti-theft systems may cause an increase or decrease in stimulation when passing through or near them. This sensation is temporary and should not harm your SCS system.
Because your device may set off metal detectors and anti-theft devices, be sure to always carry your Implant Device ID card, for example, when flying.
What can’t you do with a spinal cord stimulator?
Although you can participate in most activities with a stimulator, you will need to take these precautions:
- Turn the device off when operating a motor vehicle or heavy equipment.
- Keep bank cards, credit cards, computer disks, and other digital-encoded items away from your stimulator’s control magnet.
- Power off your device when getting X-rays or a CT scan.
- Do not undergo an MRI unless your stimulator is MRI-compatible.
Can you drive a car with a spinal cord stimulator?
Yes. However, when driving with a stimulator, turn it off first because changes in electrical impulses can cause a distraction.
Can you shower with a spinal cord stimulator?
Showering is not allowed during the trial period or within 72 hours after device implantation. Once you resume showering again, limit drying the incision sites to patting until the suture tails are removed.
How is a spinal cord stimulator removed?
If it becomes necessary to remove your stimulator, your surgeon will perform the procedure under general anesthesia. Depending on the type of leads your system has, the procedure can take anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours. During the procedure, small incisions will be made to remove both the implanted leads and the generator.
Recovery from a spinal cord removal typically requires the patient to spend one night in the hospital before returning home the following day. Any lingering surgical pain usually subsides within a few days, while most patients can resume normal activities within three weeks.
Innovative Spine Care Solutions for Patients in Chicago
At The Spine Center, we’re dedicated to providing you with high-quality, personalized back and neck care. We strive to offer efficient and professional services to our patients, delivered with integrity and honesty in a cohesive, family-like environment. We have a solid commitment to excellence in diagnosing and treating spinal injuries and conditions spanning all age groups.
As fellowship-trained physicians with over 50 years of experience treating spinal conditions, we
offer a variety of patient recommendations for treatment, including conservative care, minimally invasive treatment, and sophisticated, customized surgical solutions. Our experienced physicians serve as innovators in their field, actively participate in national and international research studies, and are at the forefront of medical knowledge. If you suffer from back or neck pain, call The Spine Center today at (847) 628-8147 to schedule a consultation.