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Spinal Cord Stimulation

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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 implanted devices that deliver electrical pulses to the spinal cord. Those pulses interrupt pain signals from the spinal cord to the brain and replace painful sensations with a mild tingling feeling. 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 promising new treatment option at Weill Cornell. (Find out more about this new SCS device.)

SCS is a safe and effective approach for managing chronic pain of the neck, back, arms, and legs (often 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.

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.

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.

Although the implantation is permanent, treatment is reversible: The implanted stimulator can be turned off or surgically removed at any time.

Reviewed by Neel Mehta, M.D.
Last reviewed/last updated: September 2015
Illustration by Thom Graves, CMI