How Does Spinal Cord Stimulation Work?

Apr 10, 2023
How Does Spinal Cord Stimulation Work?
Severe, chronic pain can take an enormous toll on your physical health, mental well-being, and quality of life. Fortunately, spinal cord stimulation can alleviate many types of pain that haven’t responded to other treatments. Here’s how it works.

Pain is ordinarily a protective mechanism: It’s your body’s normal response to injury, and it can also be a helpful warning sign of disease, dysfunction, and degeneration. But when pain becomes chronic, it can transform into a harmful mechanism that takes a toll on your physical health, mental well-being, and quality of life. 

While the right pain management approach is often all it takes to control chronic pain, some pain conditions don’t respond well to standard treatment interventions. Uncontrolled chronic pain can be exceptionally damaging, causing brain and nerve system changes that make the problem all the more persistent — and even harder to treat.

If this sounds familiar, board-certified pain management specialist Dr. Okezie N. Okezie doesn’t want you to lose hope. Dr. Okezie offers advanced pain relief procedures — including spinal cord stimulation — at Interventional Sports and Pain Management Associates in Humble and Baytown, Texas. 

Read on to learn how spinal cord stimulation works to treat severe chronic pain conditions that haven’t responded to other treatment solutions. 

What is spinal cord stimulation? 

Spinal cord stimulation — also known as neuromodulation — is an innovative and targeted pain relief approach that uses a surgically implanted device called a spinal cord stimulator to ease severe, chronic pain that hasn’t responded to other therapies and interventions. 

Spinal cord stimulation offers three invaluable benefits. It can: 

  • Treat a wide range of pain types stemming from various conditions
  • Deliver much-needed relief from relentless, uncontrolled pain
  • Prevent the need for risky pain interventions, like addictive opioids 

Spinal cord stimulation can treat many severe pain problems, including:

  • Debilitating, long-standing back or neck pain
  • Continuing back pain after spine surgery
  • Other forms of persistent post-surgical pain
  • Spinal cord injury or inflammation (arachnoiditis) 
  • Peripheral nerve damage (i.e., diabetic neuropathy)
  • Pain related to cancer treatment (i.e., radiation)
  • Leg pain from peripheral vascular disease (PVD) 
  • Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS)

Researchers continue to study other pain conditions that might benefit from spinal cord stimulation, such as pain related to cerebral palsy or traumatic brain injuries. 

An innovative, drug-free approach 

First used to relieve chronic pain in 1967, spinal cord stimulation was approved by the FDA in 1989 as a treatment for persistent pain caused by nerve damage. Today, some 30,000 people in the United States receive spinal cord stimulator implants every year. 

So, how does this innovative, drug-free treatment for severe chronic pain work?

It’s actually fairly simple. When a spinal cord stimulator is implanted in your spine, it delivers mild electric stimulation to the nerve roots along your spinal column, effectively modifying or blocking pain signals to your brain. You control the device with a handheld device that works like a remote control, allowing you to adjust the stimulator as needed.

Pain acts on both peripheral and spinal nerves to send signals to the brain. To use a simple analogy, these signals are a lot like telephone calls traveling through hard lines to their destination (your brain), where they’re received (and perceived). Your brain may send signals back to the area, too, prompting you to hold your body differently or protect the pained area. 

But when a spinal cord stimulator is activated, it sends a mild electrical current to certain nerve fibers in your spinal cord. There, this electrical current engages with and stimulates those nerve fibers, leaving them unavailable for pain signals — much like a telephone call taking over the line and effectively sending a busy signal to the other callers (pain signals) that would like to get through.

By taking over the pathway of nerve-brain communication, spinal cord stimulation keeps pain signals from reaching your brain.

From trial testing to implantation 

When used in conjunction with multimodal pain management strategies like physical therapy, spinal cord stimulation can reduce the need for prescription pain medications and lead to real improvements in virtually every area of your daily life, from your ability to sleep at night to your ability to function during the day. 

Still, spinal cord stimulation provides varying degrees of pain relief among individuals, and it isn’t right for everyone. Conventional spinal cord stimulators replace pain sensations with light tingling sensations called paresthesia. For people who don’t like paresthesia, however, newer spinal cord stimulator devices offer “sub-perception” stimulation that can’t be felt.

Most successful cases of spinal cord stimulation deliver a 50-70% decrease in pain. 

To ensure spinal cord stimulation is right for you, you go through a trial stage first to test the device and decide whether you’re comfortable with the sensations it may deliver. If you have a positive experience during your trial phase, you receive a permanent spinal cord stimulator implant in a simple outpatient procedure. 

If you need help for a severe chronic pain condition, our team at Interventional Sports and Pain Management Associates can help. Call your nearest office in Humble or Baytown, Texas today, or click online to schedule a visit with Dr. Okezie any time.