Carolinas HealthCare System
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Neurostimulation: An Alternative Approach to Back Pain

Relief from back pain is an inexact science that can be frustratingly elusive.

 A ‘Pacemaker for Pain’

For some patients suffering from back pain, a relatively underutilized treatment option called neurostimulation has been the elusive key to comfort. Approved by the FDA in 1989, spinal cord stimulation – the application of an electrical current into the source of back pain  – has become a standard alternative treatment to surgery.

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Spinal cord stimulation, which is usually done in-office by a pain management physician, entails inserting soft, thin catheter above the spinal column through a small needle. A mild electrical current is then applied to the area, effectively “blocking” the brain’s ability to sense chronic pain.

“We call it a ‘pacemaker for pain,’” said Jon-David Hoppenfeld, MD, a pain medicine specialist and spinal stimulation expert with SouthEast Pain Care, part of Carolinas HealthCare System.

Patients have the opportunity to try the treatment with a temporary electrode before deciding whether to have a permanent stimulator under their skin. If the initial trial run is effective in stopping the pain, implanting a permanent electrode under the skin is a relatively easy process. Dr. Hoppenfeld notes that patients often ask about spinal stimulation after initial pain treatment – usually physician therapy or spine injections – prove ineffective.

The Procedure

The procedure to implant the permanent device takes between 60 and 90 minutes. The patient’s skin is numbed with a local anesthetic and a tiny generator is placed under the skin, similar to the way a heart pacemaker is placed.

Dr. Hoppenfeld also uses spinal stimulation to treat patients who don’t want to undergo surgery or who are still experiencing chronic pain after back surgery.

“The best thing about this treatment is it can treat a number of painful conditions and it can be done on-site in your physician’s office,” added Hoppenfeld.