Spinal Cord Stimulators — Benefits, Side Effects and Precautions

Spinal Cord Stimulators - Benefits, Side Effects and Precautions

For back pain sufferers, the discomfort and limited mobility that comes with it can severely limit your quality of life and make it difficult to enjoy the people and activities you love. When basic treatments such as rest, over-the-counter medications, cold packs and heating pads no longer bring relief, more intensive pain management therapies become an option. An increasingly popular choice is spinal cord stimulation, which uses a small device that sends gentle electrical currents to relieve back pain. 

If you are wondering if spinal cord stimulation is right for you and want to learn more about the benefits as well as potential side effects and the precautions to take, this guide can help. By learning more about the process of spinal cord stimulation, you can make an active and informed decision for your pain relief. 

What Is Spinal Cord Stimulation?

Spinal cord stimulation uses a gentle electrical pulse sent to the epidural space, or area between the spinal cord and the surrounding vertebrae, to relieve pain. Spinal cord stimulation can help with a range of conditions, including lower back pain, degenerative spine conditions, arachnoiditis, spinal cord injuries and complex regional pain syndrome. Although researchers are working to fully understand how it works, spinal cord stimulation basically overrides pain signals being sent to the brain with the sensation of paresthesia created by the gentle electrical current. 

Spinal cord stimulators usually consist of thin electrodes connected to a small power pack that is implanted in the body. The implant connects to a wireless remote control that enables the patient to activate the device when they feel pain. 

Before a spinal cord stimulator is permanently implanted, most people will undergo a trial period. During the trial, the electrodes are attached to the spinal cord, but the power pack and antenna remain outside the body. If the stimulation is effective in providing relief during the trial period, the power pack will then be implanted permanently in a minimally invasive, outpatient procedure. 


Spinal Cord Stimulator Benefits

There are a range of potential benefits that spinal cord stimulation can offer, including:

  • Lasting pain relief
  • Reduced need for medication
  • Improved mobility and activity level
  • Better sleep duration and quality
  • Improved overall quality of life
  • Can help patients delay or avoid the need for spine surgery

Spinal cord stimulation can be used with other interventional pain management techniques. In fact, integrating spinal cord stimulation with a comprehensive plan that includes physical therapy, pain management injections, relaxation and meditation techniques and therapeutic exercise can help provide long-term relief for back pain. 


Understanding the Potential Side Effects of Spinal Cord Stimulation

Although spinal cord stimulation is non-medicinal and generally considered safe, there are risks and potential side effects that anyone considering this treatment should be aware of. Although rare, side effects of spinal cord stimulators can include: 

  • Infection or rejection of the device
  • Device migration, which is when the electrodes move from the initial location and begin providing less effective pain relief
  • Puncture of the dura surrounding the spinal cord during implantation, which can result in spinal fluid leaking 
  • Damage to the device due to a fall or injury

After having a spinal cord stimulator implanted, patients should follow all recovery and use instructions given by their surgical provider and attend all follow up appointments. Patients should also contact a doctor or surgical provider at the first sign of any complications, including fever, nausea, headaches and swelling or bleeding at the surgical site. 


What Precautions Should Anyone Using a Spinal Cord Stimulator Take? 

In general, a spinal cord stimulator can be used with minimal restrictions and precautions, but there are guidelines that can help improve safety and maximize the effectiveness of the device. Your spinal cord stimulator provider will give you detailed instructions for care and use of both the trial device and the permanent device. Here are a few examples of typical spinal cord stimulation precautions patients are advised to be aware of:

  • During the trial period, the external power pack cannot get wet, so swimming, showering, and vigorous exercise need to be avoided for this short time
  • Swimming, bathing and vigorous exercise can all be performed with the permanent device
  • Spinal cord stimulators can interfere with certain electronic and magnetic devices, and will need to be shut down while driving 
  • Spinal cord stimulators must be turned off when undergoing imaging such as an X-ray or CT scan, and they are not compatible with MRI machinery
  • Spinal cord stimulators can set off airport security gates and patients are generally given identification to help expedite airport security screenings

Spinal cord stimulators can be safely removed in the event of complications or if they no longer provide adequate relief. 

Contact PPOA Today

If you are dealing with chronic back pain and are considering pain management options, the caring team at Physician Partners of America is here to help. From pain relieving anti-inflammatory injections to spinal cord stimulation to minimally invasive spine surgery, we can help anyone at any stage of treatment find the relief they deserve. We’ll work with you to create a personalized treatment plan that is right for your unique circumstances so you can get back to a healthy and active lifestyle. 

Contact us today to learn more and schedule your appointment.