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Pros and Cons of Spinal Cord Stimulators

Pros and Cons of Spinal Cord Stimulators

Chronic pain can occur as a result of an auto accident, a slip and fall, the failure of a product to work properly, or for myriad other reasons. Chronic pain can make it difficult for people to live their lives to the fullest. They may be unable to work, or enjoy time with their families.  Spinal cord stimulation is normally suggested after chiropractic care and invasive therapies, such as steroid injections or back pain surgery, fail to provide relief from this pain.

What is spinal cord stimulation (SCS)?

Spinal cord stimulation (SCS) is an FDA approved medical treatment for chronic back and neck pain. An SCS surgery implants electrodes in the spinal canal. The electrodes are managed by a pulse generator that is normally put in the abdomen or buttocks. There are wires to connect the electrodes to the generator. The patient then uses an external controller to power the generator and adjust its strength. Typically, a pain management doctor will perform a trial to determine if the spinal cord stimulator helps. If the patient says the device helps, then a neurologist implants the SCS through a surgical procedure.

What does spinal cord stimulation treat?

Spinal cord stimulation treats the following conditions:

  • Complex regional pain syndrome
  • Back pain
  • Neuropathy caused by diabetes
  • Back pain that continues despite the patient undergoing laminectomy surgery
  • Pain caused by malfunction of the nerves

Research is in progress to determine if spinal cord stimulation can treat the following:

What are the three main types of SCS, and how do they work?

There are three types of spinal cord stimulators:

  • Conventional implantable pulse generator. While undergoing an operation the doctor will implant a battery into your spine. Once the battery dies, another surgery will need to be performed to replace the battery. This option is best for those who have pain in only one body part.
  • Rechargeable implantable pulse generator. As with the IPG stimulator, a battery is placed in your spine during surgery. However, this battery can be recharged without having to undergo a second surgery. This option is best for patients who have pain in more than one area of the body, such as the back and one or both legs.
  • Radiofrequency stimulator. This is one of the older designs used as a spinal cord stimulator. It requires the use of a battery that is outside of your body. This device uses rechargeable batteries but is not as widely used as it once was.

What are the advantages of spinal cord stimulators?

SCS procedures are reversible. If there are complications, or if the spinal cord stimulator is not providing relief, the device can be removed. Other advantages are:

  • Most insurances cover all or part of it
  • It only requires a small incision
  • It can reduce or end the need to take addictive painkillers, such as opioids

If it works, a spinal cord stimulator can greatly increase your ability to work, perform daily activities, spend time with family and friends, and enjoy life.

What are the disadvantages of spinal cord stimulators?

There are no guarantees. The SCS device simply may not provide the desired relief for your spinal cord pain immediately. It also can fail over time as the body reacts to it. Devices work for some patients and not for others, even though their physical backgrounds may be similar. Some of the complications with SCS devices are:

  • Every surgical procedure has a risk of infection and bleeding
  • Spinal fluid leaks can cause headaches
  • The generator battery may not work or may leak
  • Scar tissue can form around the electrodes
  • If you have an SCS, you cannot undergo an MRI

All surgery has inherent risks. Spinal cord surgery is a last resort, not a first one.

Horror stories of spinal cord stimulators

As with any type of medical device, there are issues with spinal cord stimulators. In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a letter to doctors calling for more testing before implantation of spinal cord stimulators. The letter was necessitated by more than 490 reported deaths associated with spinal cord stimulators.

Aside from the close to 500 deaths, these devices have also led to paralysis. David Winnett is a Marine veteran who was living with chronic back pain for years. He underwent surgery to have a spinal cord stimulator inserted into his spine in September 2017.

Winnett has since been paralyzed from the surgery and he is not alone. According to research conducted by Device, more than 680 people have reported paralysis due to spinal cord stimulators. There have been an additional 100,000 reports of injuries from the devices.

Are there permanent restrictions to spinal cord stimulators?

There are no permanent restrictions if you have a spinal cord stimulator inserted into your body. However, doctors might recommend making changes to your lifestyle to reduce injuries from damaged leads, leads falling out, or infections developing.

Some changes to your lifestyle that doctors might recommend include the following:

  • Reducing activity for two weeks following surgery. Once approved to increase activity, you can return to work and driving (with the device turned off).
  • Carrying the medical card identifying that you have a stimulator everywhere you go (including flying).
  • Avoiding lifting, twisting, or stretching as it can move the device or cause the leads to fall out of place.

You will need to see your doctor two weeks after surgery to determine if you can resume normal activity. However, you should gradually increase your activity levels once you hit the two-week post-op mark and do not return to 100 percent immediately. You will need to rebuild your strength and ensure that you do not overdo it to the point where the device breaks or moves to a new location in your body.

At Gainsberg Law, P.C, our Chicago personal injury lawyers understand how devastating spinal injuries are for victims and their families. We want you to know about your options so you can make good decisions with the help of your doctor. If you sustained a spinal injury as a result of someone’s negligence, we want to help. Please call our office or complete our contact form.