Spinal Cord Stimulation: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Spinal cord stimulation (SCS) has developed into a standard treatment for those with chronic back or limb pain who have been unsuccessful in finding relief from other treatments. But what is it exactly?

According to Spine Health, it is an aggressive pain management approach that calls for surgically implanting an electrotherapeutic device onto the spinal cord.

How does Spinal Cord Stimulation Work?

Once a physician determines whether or not the patient is a good candidate for SCS treatment for chronic pain, the process can begin. Some factors that doctors consider when deciding whether some is a good candidate include:

  • Persistent back pain accompanied by or without leg pain
  • Persistent neck pain accompanied by or without arm pain
  • Previous surgeries (or surgery) but the pain is still there
  • Pain remains despite other treatments being undertaken

Trial Spinal Cord Stimulation

With SCS treatment, there always has to be a short trial period that usually lasts a week. This involves use of a temporary stimulator and is used to discover whether or not SCS will provide sufficient pain relief for the patient. It is an outpatient procedure where the following steps take place:

  • Local anesthetic is used to numb the patient’s skin
  • Leads are positioned under the patient’s skin and are connected to a mini generator, carried by the patient
  • Electrical currents are sent in a pattern, aimed at the location of the pain, with the objective of providing adequate pain relief.

The procedure normally takes 10 to 20 minutes, and if the patient experiences notable relief from their pain during the trial period, the full system can then be inserted.

SCS Surgery

Once the trial is successful, surgery is required for a permanent system to be put in place. This time, the generator is inserted in the upper buttock or abdomen.

  • Once again, local anesthetic is used to numb the patient’s skin
  • The leads are positioned under the skin
  • A mini generator (battery) is surgically positioned in the abdomen or upper buttock
  • Wires are attached in a way that ensures the complete system is under the skin

This surgical procedure takes from 60 to 90 minutes to complete, but is also an outpatient procedure. Patients are still able to participate in daily activities without interruption or inconvenience, there is nothing for the patient to carry and nothing can be seen on the body.

Batteries can last from two to five years depending on the system, the batteries, and how frequently it is used.

Spinal cord stimulation has many benefits, including:

  • A trial procedure before committing to anything permanent
  • The system can be removed if the patient experiences side effects or no longer needs it
  • The procedure is on an outpatient basis and nothing can be seen on the body
  • The patient’s lives are not interrupted and they can continue with any activities
  • Pain relief continues even when the device is switched off.

Although SCS has many benefits, it is important to remember that it is not for everyone experiencing chronic pain. Consultation with a doctor is necessary, even after the procedure, in case the patient needs to undergo other medical treatments for unrelated problems. Procedures such as an ultrasound or MRI should be avoided.


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