People whose back or neck pain has not been relieved by back surgery or other treatments may have another option to consider: spinal cord stimulation.

Around the world, some 14,000 patients undergo spinal cord stimulator implants each year. Spinal cord stimulation (SCS) delivers mild electrical stimulation to nerves along the spinal column, modifying or blocking nerve activity in a non-medicinal way to minimize the sensation of pain reaching the brain.

See Therapeutic Nerve Blocks for Neuropathy

Spinal cord stimulation was first used to treat pain in 1967. Spinal cord stimulation was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1989 to relieve pain from nerve damage in the trunk, arms, or legs, and now accounts for about 90 percent of all neuromodulation treatments. That number is expected to grow to manage chronic disease states as the population ages and as spinal cord stimulation is expanded to treat other diseases.

See Chronic Pain Coping Techniques - Pain Management

Spinal cord stimulation, also called neurostimulation, directs mild electrical pulses to interfere with pain messages reaching the brain. A small device implanted near the spine generates these pulses. The implanted generator used in spinal cord stimulation has similarities to a cardiac pacemaker, leading some to call the device a pacemaker for pain.

See Rechargeable Spinal Cord Stimulators for Chronic Pain

Growing Interest in Spinal Cord Stimulation

Spinal cord stimulation has been used for decades, and is being recommended for an increasing number of conditions. Failed back surgery syndrome, cervical and lumbar radiculitis, neuropathy, and complex regional pain syndrome are some conditions that may be helped by the therapy.

See Failed Back Surgery Syndrome (FBSS): What It Is and How to Avoid Pain after Surger

Smaller devices have made implantation less invasive, and innovations—such as devices that are compatible with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scan)—have expanded the number of people likely to consider the therapy.

In addition, nationwide efforts to reduce reliance on opioid pain medications are bringing renewed interest to a range of pain-relief treatments that do not involve medications—including spinal cord stimulation.

See Pain Killer Addiction Treatment


Trial Period Offers an Unusual Option

Unlike most treatments requiring surgery, spinal cord stimulation can be tried for a short time before a person commits to having the implant or having any lasting negative effects. The trial period is part of a two-step screening process to select those most likely to benefit. Should a patient not want the trial anymore, the lead is pulled out in the office, and a small bandage is applied—a simple, painless process.

Careful screening is needed because spinal cord stimulation does not work for everyone. Most people who are good candidates for the therapy, however, report at least a 50% reduction in pain, as well as significant improvement in daily functioning. 1 Verrills P, Sinclair C, Barnard A. A review of spinal cord stimulation systems for chronic pain. J Pain Res. 2016;9:481-92.

Watch: Video: Am I a Candidate for Back Surgery?

Some people are also able to take fewer opioid medications (painkillers) after they start spinal cord stimulation.

See Recovery After Spinal Cord Stimulation Trial


Peripheral Nerve Field Stimulation Uses Similar Process

Spinal cord stimulation is one of two related forms of electrical stimulation commonly used to treat chronic pain. The other, peripheral nerve field stimulation, is similar, but the devices directing the electrical pulses are placed just under the skin in an area near the nerves involved in pain.

It is possible to have both spinal cord stimulation and peripheral nerve field therapy in combination for pain treatment.

Specialists Who May Perform Spinal Cord Stimulation

Doctors who perform spinal cord stimulation procedures include, but are not limited to:

See How to Select a Spine Surgeon

A good question to ask a prospective specialist is what percentage of the doctor’s patients who have a trial period of stimulation go on to have a permanent implant. A high percentage indicates the specialist is carefully selecting candidates.

See Specific Questions to Ask Your Spine Surgeon

Finding a doctor with experience is important in the case of spinal cord stimulation, as more experience generally leads to greater expertise. Also, spinal cord stimulation is a rapidly changing field of medicine, with new devices arriving frequently on the market. A specialist with experience in the procedure is likely to be more adept and up-to-date on the latest techniques and devices.

See Red Flags to Notice When Choosing a Spine Surgeon

  • 1 Verrills P, Sinclair C, Barnard A. A review of spinal cord stimulation systems for chronic pain. J Pain Res. 2016;9:481-92.

Dr. Neel Mehta is an anesthesiologist and the Medical Director of Pain Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. He specializes in treating spine and joint pain with minimally invasive, non-surgical procedures.