Spinal Cord Stimulators for Pain Management

Question: How Successful are Spinal Cord Stimulators/Electrotherapy?

I have had two spinal operations on the S1-L5-L4-L3 area, removal of disc and bone due to a work injury lifting a heavy object. I still have burning in my legs (varying degree) and leg weakness. I have seen a spine specialist and he does not think there is anything that can be done.

However, I received a second opinion from a neurosurgeon suggesting an SCS device. I need to get data on the success on the SCS or TENS/IFC units. Could you cite some sources and studies on SCS and on these electrotherapy units?

Article continues below

Doctor's Response: Use SCS Technology Sparingly

The Spine Journal (published by the North American Spine Society) had a review article on the use of SCS for chronic pain. After reviewing the available literature, the authors and the members of a think tank basically had no recommendations on whether or not it is all that useful.

There has been no definitive controlled and randomized study showing that SCS (spinal cord simulators) are all that efficacious. Most studies will quote less than a 50% success rate at 2 years. For this reason, they stated only that it may be a useful procedure for some patients, but no other recommendations were made.

The reason you are getting conflicting information is that no one knows if electrotherapy will work for you until it has been tried. The chance it works is only 50/50, but there is no way to know if it will work before the surgery is done.

In my own opinion, SCS is a technology that should be used very sparingly. In most cases, it is a lot to go through with very little in defined potential benefit. The risk of the procedure and expense is only justified in those patients with significant pain and disability that have failed a comprehensive rehabilitation program and do not have an anatomical lesion that can be corrected with surgery.

Recommended Articles:



In Spine-health’s Doctor Advice section, physicians respond to frequently asked questions about back pain issues. These responses represent the opinion of one physician, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the broader medical community. The advice presented has not been peer reviewed by Spine-health’s medical advisory board.