Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS)

Spinal cord stimulation (SCS) is a treatment for patients who want to gain greater control over chronic pain.  A spinal cord stimulator system includes (1) a small generator that may be rechargeable or non-rechargeable and (2) flexible leads both of which are surgically implanted into your body.  The stimulator device is implanted either on your left or right side below your waist in the abdomen or buttock.  The flexible leads are inserted and secured in your spinal canal, close to a specific area of your spinal cord.

How a spinal cord stimulator works

  • Spinal cord stimulation produces electrical impulses that block the brain’s perception of pain.
  • Pain is replaced by a mild tingling sensation.

Steps to treatment success

  1. Careful patient selection.
  2. Successful SCS trial.

Your doctor provides you with information about the spinal cord stimulation system, such as a patient-friendly educational video.  He will explain how you may benefit as well as the potential risks.

Spinal Cord Stimulator Video:

Spinal cord stimulation systems have a few things in common.

  • Spinal cord stimulation is not a new treatment.
  • Like other medical devices, advances have improved SCS technology.
  • Battery life is longer; a stimulator is easy for the patient to recharge.
  • Certain systems treat multiple pain areas.

Patient selection for spinal cord stimulation

Your doctor carefully and thoughtfully evaluates your pain, including your diagnosis and treatments tried and their effect on pain control.  Chronic pain is complex and, unfortunately, spinal cord stimulation is unsuitable for all patients.  Your doctor may consider spinal cord stimulation or a stimulator trial if:

  • Non-operative treatments have failed.
  • Surgery is not an option.
  • Surgery is not likely to be effective.
  • Surgery has not improved your pain and symptoms.
  • You do not have a pacemaker.

Like other medical devices, there are different types of spinal cord stimulators.  Your doctor will recommend the best system based on your pain characteristics and lifestyle.

SCS trial

Implanted spinal cord stimulator SCSFirst, you try a spinal cord stimulator for a few days or longer to help decide if SCS is right for you.  Your doctor injects a local anesthetic and, through a tiny incision, implants one or more temporary leads into your spine.  The leads are connected to the stimulator that is worn outside your body, about your waist.

The objective of the trial is to determine how much of your pain can be controlled using the stimulator.  Usually 50% is considered a success.  Some patients experience greater pain reduction.  If the trial is considered successful, your doctor can permanently implant the system.  The surgery is reversible.

Permanent implantation is performed under general anesthesia and may require hospitalization overnight.

Potential risks, complications of SCS

The potential risks and complications are similar to those of other medical devices and include infection, bleeding, headache, allergic reaction, spinal fluid leakage, and paralysis.  Your doctor will discuss all the potential risks and complications well ahead of scheduling your SCS trial or surgery.

Other information

If you decide to have the spinal cord stimulator permanently implanted, expect typical surgical aftercare instructions.  Aftercare instructions typically include keeping the incision sites dry and temporary activity modification while you heal.  In about a week, you return to your doctor for incision care (remove staples) and follow up.

Depending on the characteristics of your chronic pain, you may need to take supplemental oral doses of medication to control spikes or flare ups of severe pain.

Talk with your doctor

We hope this information about spinal cord stimulation has answered your immediate questions.  Remember, your doctor is your most valuable source to answer your questions about spinal disorders, treatment and your healthcare.

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