It’s thought around 2.5 million people suffer from back pain every day in the UK. And treating it is costing the NHS more than £1 billion each year. It shouldn’t be ignored either, with lower back pain alone responsible for 11% of disabilities. If you’re someone who is finding it difficult to cope with the crippling effects of chronic back pain, one solution could be a spinal cord stimulator.
This form of pain relief is designed for people who suffer from long-term back pain that restricts your day-to-day activities. It can be seen as one possible solution after pain-killing medication – or other forms of pain relief – are tried. But what is a spinal cord stimulator, how does one work and how can it benefit people who suffer from chronic back pain? Read on to find out more.
What is a spinal cord stimulator?
A spinal cord stimulator is a machine that includes a thin wire implanted into your spine. This is then connected with leads to a small control box, which is implanted into the lower abdomen or buttock. The box is actually a computer that sends impulses to the wire in the spine – providing electrical stimulation for the spinal cord and the nerves within it.
The control box is also paired with a hand-held remote control. This lets you switch your device on and off, while you can also adjust the settings and the impulse going through the wire in the spine. It’s like a peripheral nerve stimulator, which can be implanted near damaged nerves in a different part of the body. A pacemaker for the heart also works in a similar way.
How does a spinal cord stimulator work?
Spinal cord electrical stimulation doesn’t target the root cause of your back pain. Instead, what it does is change some of the pain signals being transmitted from parts of the body to the brain. This is done by delivering a tiny electrical charge into the nerves within the spinal cord.
It is a tried and tested way to relieve chronic back pain. In fact, it’s estimated to be effective in 50-70% of patients. It doesn’t mean, however, that you won’t feel any more back pain. A 50% reduction in pain is normally the benchmark for a successful spinal cord stimulator trial.
But even that can make a huge difference to someone living with the impact of back pain.
What does spinal cord electrical stimulation feel like?
Each person who suffers from long-term back pain is different. So, it’s no surprise to learn that the use of a spinal cord stimulator can feel different depending on the patient. But it’s common for people to describe the feeling like a tingling sensation in the area – think pins and needles.
How is a spinal cord stimulator implanted?
Before a spinal cord stimulator is implanted, there is an emotional screening process. Essentially, this is to make sure the idea of having a foreign object inside you doesn’t cause stress or worry. After all, it is an electrical device that has an impact on your body at the flick of a switch.
After this, there is usually a trial period of a few weeks to see if long-term use of the spinal cord stimulator is likely to provide effective pain relief. Wires are placed into your spine under local anaesthetic and sedation so you can discuss the effects. The battery is not inserted in the trial.
The trial normally lasts for two weeks and it’s estimated that only 70% of trials are a success. If the trial is a success, however, another operation is needed to fully implant the stimulator.
It’s carried out in two stages. The first is to place the wires in the spine, while the second will be when the battery is inserted. This is often done under general anaesthetic or deep sedation, with a small incision made in the skin in order to insert the battery.It is possible to remove the device if required.
How long is the spinal cord stimulator surgery recovery time?
After the operation, the spinal cord stimulator recovery time shouldn’t be too long in most cases. It’s likely that you’ll be able to go home after a few hours – though this can depend on what the doctor or nurse says.
In the couple of weeks that follow, there will be a number of activities you won’t be able to do – such as heavy lifting, housework or anything that might bend or twist your back. This period can last for up to 12 weeks.
What are the benefits of a spinal cord stimulator?
Quite simply, the main benefit of a spinal cord stimulator is the relief it can provide from chronic back pain. If you’re unable to do even routine tasks because of the pain you experience, a spinal cord stimulator has the potential to let you do more of the activities you love – and enjoy a much better quality of life. And it can give you hope if other methods of pain relief haven’t worked.
What are the risks?
Getting a spinal cord stimulator is not without its risks. Some of these can include:
- Pain where the battery is inserted
- Infection (although this occurs in less than five out of every 100 people)
- Bleeding and bruising
- Unpleasant feeling/sensation
In addition, there are some more serious (yet rare) complications – like spinal cord stimulator paralysis. But this is very rare and only thought to affect two patients in every million.
Who can get a spinal cord stimulator implanted?
If chronic back pain limits what you can do and other forms of relief aren’t working, you may be a candidate for a spinal cord stimulator. National Institute for Care and Excellence guidelines set out the conditions where spinal cord electrical stimulation may help.
Can you get a spinal cord stimulator on the NHS?
Yes – you can get a spinal cord stimulator implanted through the NHS. A consultant may suggest that you are suitable for a trial if other forms of treatment aren’t having the desired effect.
How can Shoosmiths help?
Our team knows how hard it can be after a spinal cord injury. If it leads to long-term back pain that has a major impact on your day-to-day life, we understand what it can mean for both you and your family. That’s why we’re here to help you get the support you deserve.
If you’re injured and someone else is at fault, our specialist spinal cord injury solicitors have a proven record in getting the compensation you need to get back on track.
We can also put you in touch with support groups and organisations who can help with the next step. And any compensation award you receive can be used for any care or treatment you need – including the cost of having a spinal cord stimulator implanted privately if that’s an option.
If you would like more details about coping with a spinal injury or to share your experience with a member of our team for free and in confidence, call us or send us a message.
This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2023