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What is a Spinal Cord Stimulator?

A spinal cord stimulator (SCS) is an implantable device designed to alleviate pain by delivering controlled electrical pulses directly to the spinal cord. It’s a common option when other non-surgical pain treatments have been ineffective. The process involves two stages: a trial period and the actual implantation.

During the trial, temporary leads are placed near the spinal cord to assess the effectiveness of stimulation in reducing pain. If successful, the permanent implantation is performed, involving placing the leads and a small generator under the skin.

SCS can significantly enhance quality of life by reducing pain levels, improving sleep, and decreasing reliance on pain medications. It’s often used in conjunction with other pain management strategies to provide comprehensive relief for chronic pain conditions.

Diseases Cured by Spinal Cord Stimulator

Spinal cord stimulation (SCS) is utilized to manage various chronic pain conditions when conventional treatments have proven ineffective. These conditions include:

  • Back pain, especially post-surgery (failed back surgery syndrome).
  • Post-surgical pain.
  • Arachnoiditis characterized by painful inflammation of the arachnoid membrane.
  • Refractory angina (heart pain untreatable by other means).
  • Spinal cord injuries.
  • Nerve-related pain like severe diabetic neuropathy or neuropathy from cancer treatments.
  • Peripheral vascular disease.
  • Complex regional pain syndrome.
  • Phantom limb pain after amputation.
  • Visceral abdominal and perineal pain.

SCS can enhance overall quality of life and sleep while reducing reliance on pain medications. It’s often part of a comprehensive pain management approach that includes medications, exercise, physical therapy, and relaxation techniques.

How Does It Work?

Spinal cord stimulators function through electrodes placed in the epidural space between the spinal cord and vertebrae, along with a small battery pack (generator) implanted under the skin. The generator is typically positioned near the buttocks or abdomen. Patients can activate the stimulator using a remote control to deliver electrical impulses when they experience pain. The remote control and its antenna remain external.

While the exact mechanisms of spinal cord stimulation are not fully understood, it is believed to target multiple muscle groups directly along the spine, potentially modifying pain perception in the brain.

Traditional stimulators create a tingling sensation (paresthesia) that replaces pain perception. Newer devices offer “sub-perception” stimulation, which is imperceptible to the patient. These advancements cater to individuals who find paresthesia uncomfortable.

Placement of spinal cord stimulators requires specialized training in interventional pain management and is often guided by X-ray or ultrasound for precise positioning.

Post Recovery Care

After spinal cord stimulator implantation, most patients can go home the same day once the anesthesia wears off. Expect some discomfort at the incision sites for several days. Avoid stretching, twisting, or reaching that could strain the incisions. Dressings are typically removed after about 3 days, and incisions usually heal within 2-4 weeks.

Your doctor will outline a recovery plan, generally advising lighter activity for about 2 weeks. Once approved, you can resume normal activities, return to work, and drive again (with the stimulator turned off), typically within 1-2 weeks post-surgery. Follow your doctor’s instructions closely for optimal healing and effectiveness of the spinal cord stimulator.

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