Spinal Cord Stimulation for Back Pain

Spinal Cord Stimulation for Back Pain
An implanted spinal cord stimulator delivers electrical pulses to the spinal cord that interrupt pain signals to the brain. The device is often implanted near the hip, although placement can vary. Electrical wires extend to the precise location on the spinal cord that controls the area where the pain is; the leads can be attached to control one or both sides of the body, one or both arms and legs, or either or both sides of the head in the case of headache pain. An external remote allows the implanted device to be adjusted without additional surgery.

Spinal cord stimulators (SCS) are permanently but reversible implanted devices that deliver electrical pulses to the spinal cord, much like a pacemaker does for the heart. Those pulses interrupt pain signals from the spinal cord to the brain and reduce painful sensations. The technology was developed in the 1960s but in the past decade it has become highly effective in the treatment of pain. In 2015, the first high-frequency SCS device was approved by the FDA and has become a mainstay of treatment options at Weill Cornell Medicine. (Find out more about this SCS device.)

SCS is a safe and effective approach for managing chronic pain of the neck, back, arms, and legs (including pain that continues even after spine surgery), or for other neuropathic conditions. Recent advances suggest uses for SCS in the treatment of pelvic pain, non-cardiac chest/angina pain, and chronic abdominal pain not due to inflammatory bowel disease. Finally, studies are showing improved blood flow following spinal cord stimulation for patients with peripheral vascular disease.

Weill Cornell Medicine Pain Management and Neurosurgery were involved in the research for spinal cord stimulation usage in the treatment of painful diabetic neuropathy (PDN). The results of this research has led to a new FDA approved treatment. (See our 2021 paper on that clinical trial here.)

Unlike most interventional therapies, spinal cord stimulators can be placed on a trial basis, allowing a patient to try a temporary stimulator at home for five to seven days before deciding whether to undergo the permanent implantation. This allows a patient to know the level of pain relief to expect if a permanent stimulator were placed.

Benefits of SCS may include:

  • Significant and sustained reduction in back and extremity pain
  • Improved ability to function and participate in activities of daily living
  • Reduced dosage of oral pain medications
  • Ability to adjust the stimulator based on pain level

As an added benefit, an individual whose pain is well controlled by spinal cord stimulation then has the potential ability to participate in other forms of pain management therapy, which they could not do while suffering debilitating pain.

Watch: A patient in seemingly intractable pain gets relief from high-frequency SRS:

Our Care Team

  • Hansen-MacDonald Professor of Neurological Surgery
  • Director of Spinal Surgery
Phone: 212-746-2152
  • Assistant Professor of Radiology in Neurological Surgery (Manhattan and Queens)
Phone: 212-746-2821 (Manhattan) or 718-303-3739 (Queens)
  • Associate Professor of Neurological Surgery, Spinal Surgery
  • Co-Director, Spinal Deformity and Scoliosis Program
  • Chief of Neurological Surgery, NYP Lower Manhattan
Phone: 212-746-2260
  • Assistant Professor, Neurosurgery 
Phone: (888) 922-2257
  • Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery, Spine Surgery
Phone: 718-670-1837 (Queens) / 888-922-2257 (Manhattan)
  • Chief of Neurological Surgery, NewYork-Presbyterian Queens
  • Co-director, Weill Cornell Medicine CSF Leak Program
Phone: (718) 670-1837
  • Orthopedic Surgeon
  • Director, Orthopedic Spine Surgery
Phone: 212-746-1164
  • Clinical Associate Professor of Neurosurgery
  • Attending Neurosurgeon
Phone: 888-922-2257
  • Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery
Phone: 646-962-3388
  • Associate Professor of Clinical Neurological Surgery
Phone: 718-780-5176
  • Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery
Phone: 866-426-7787 (Manhattan) / 646-967-2020 (Brooklyn)
  • Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery
Phone: (718) 670-1837

Reviewed by Neel Mehta, M.D.
Last reviewed/last updated: September 2021
Illustration by Thom Graves, CMI

Weill Cornell Medicine Brain & Spine Center 525 East 68 Street, Box 99 New York, NY 10065 Phone: 866-426-7787