Pain free woman stretches her back

Spinal cord stimulation, also referred to as neurostimulation, is a pain management procedure that does not use any kind of medication. Instead, a small device, called a generator, is implanted under the skin in either the abdomen, chest, or buttocks via a minimally-invasive surgical procedure. Attached to this device are thin wires, called leads, that deliver small, electrical pulses to the surrounding nerves to interrupt pain signals when activated by the patient.

Why Spinal Cord Stimulation Is Performed

Spinal cord stimulation is a pain management procedure performed for people who have had surgery to eliminate pain that was unsuccessful. Spinal cord stimulation is used to treat:

  • Chronic back pain
  • Chronic neck pain
  • Complex regional pain

What to Expect During a Spinal Cord Stimulation Procedure

Prior to a spinal cord stimulation procedure, the patient is sedated and given local anesthesia via an injection to the area that will be operated on. Next, the surgeon introduces a hollow needle to the area of the spine where the leads will be placed. The leads are inserted through the hollow needle and into the spinal region, and connected close to certain nerve roots.

At this point, the pain specialist awakens the patient before fixing the leads in place. Test pulses are administered and the patient tells the doctor when pain symptoms subside. This process helps the pain specialist understand when the leads are in the correct place. The patient is then sedated once more so that the surgeon can implant the generator. The generator is implanted through a single incision, and the leads are connected to the device. A spinal cord stimulation system needs to be replaced between two and 10 years after implantation, depending on the system.

Risks Associated with Spinal Cord Stimulation

Health risks associated with spinal cord stimulation surgery include:

  • Infection
  • Bleeding
  • Allergic reaction to the anesthesia
  • Pain over the site of the generator

The most common complication experienced with the device is migration of the leads to a different, unwanted location. In this case, the leads need to be moved through another surgery.

Benefits of Spinal Cord Stimulation

Spinal cord stimulation can reduce or eliminate pain, allowing patients to maintain functionality, when other pain management surgeries or other approaches have not been successful. After the device is implanted, patients can control when it is activated.

Spinal cord stimulation surgery is reversible, meaning that the generator and leads can be removed later without causing any damage to the spine or surrounding tissues.

How to Prepare for Spinal Cord Stimulation

Patients may be asked to refrain from eating or drinking for a certain number of hours before the procedure. They may also be asked to refrain from taking certain medications, such as blood thinners, to reduce the risk of complications. It’s important to follow all pre-procedure instructions communicated by the surgeon and medical team.

Post Spinal Cord Stimulation Treatment

Patients can start to perform light activities two to three weeks after the procedure. The initial weeks following the procedure, patients are instructed to avoid certain movements like bending, twisting, lifting objects heavier than five pounds, and stretching. Full recovery can take up to eight weeks. To reduce the risk of the leads moving around, certain activities may be prohibited for up to three months.

Pain Management Locations

To find a pain management specialist,
call 844-333-DOCS (3627)

MedStar Washington Hospital Center

110 Irving Street, NW
Washington, DC 20010 

MedStar Health at Lafayette Centre
1133 21st St. NW
Washington, DC 20036

MedStar Health at Brandywine
13950 Brandywine Road
Suite 225
Brandywine, MD 20613