Ask Dr. Choi: How Does Spinal Cord Electrical Stimulation Feel?

Dr. Choi explains how spinal cord stimulation uses electrical stimulation to replace pain with a more comfortable sensation.

electrical stimulation

For certain chronic pain patients, spinal cord stimulation can provide pain relief when other treatments have failed. The treatment involves careful placement of an electrode device in the layers of tissue just outside the spine. This device directs electrical stimulation to spinal nerves, interrupting pain messages and replacing them with another sensation. Summit physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Dr. Catherine Choi explains how this treatment replaces pain, and she describes the electrical stimulation sensation patients will feel instead.

How the procedure works

“Spinal cord stimulation is a two-step procedure,” says Dr. Choi. “First, we conduct a trial to see if the patient responds to the electrical impulse. If pain is alleviated during the trial, we move to the second step: surgery to implant the device permanently.

During the trial period, Dr. Choi performs a procedure that introduces the electrode via a needle and positions it near the spine. Then, the patient returns home to test the device for about a week. “We want to trial the patient’s experience with the electrical impulse transmitted to their spine,” explains Dr. Choi. “Does it cover their area of pain and replace pain with a different feeling? This is what we want to learn.”

How electrical stimulation evolved

“People may be familiar with the TENS technology used by physical therapists to treat back patients,” says Dr. Choi. “TENS uses electrical pads placed on the back to deliver electrical impulses to back muscles to help them relax. That technology was advanced further when we asked, ‘What if we were to transmit electrical impulses to the spine?’”

What a patient feels from the electrical stimulation

Spinal cord stimulation technology developed to do exactly that: transmit electrical impulses to the spine. “Right now, spinal cord stimulation doesn’t remove pain,” Dr. Choi explains. “Instead, the electrical stimulation blocks and replaces pain with a different feeling. Through the interference of stimulation, the brain can’t perceive the pain, but will experience electrical impulses that feel like a tapping or buzzing on the body.”

A patient might feel buzzing down the back of the leg. “Eventually, your body becomes sensitized to these feelings,” says Dr. Choi. “You begin to experience the electrical stimulation the way you experience the clothes you wear every day. Just because we are wearing clothing doesn’t mean we ‘feel’ the fabric of our clothes on our body every instant. That’s because our brain has adjusted or ‘sensitized’ to the clothing. In the same way, our brain sensitizes to the buzzing and tapping of the electrical stimulation. But it will also block pain.”

Electrical stimulation technologies offer a new world of pain relief. They provide additional options for patients who have had multiple surgeries without significant pain relief. 

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  • Catherine Y. Choi, M.D.

    “My philosophy in treating my patient is to provide personalized spine education,  review comprehensive treatment options and work together in determining the best path for you. “

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