Ask Dr. Choi: What Is Spinal Cord Stimulation?

Dr. Choi explains how spinal cord stimulation works to relieve chronic back pain.

spinal cord stimulation

The Summit spine team offers a wide range of surgical and nonsurgical treatments to relieve chronic pain. Among the treatments offered is spinal cord stimulation, a therapy approved by the FDA in 1989. Summit physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Dr. Catherine Choi explains spinal cord stimulation, providing information about when this treatment is an appropriate option for patients.

The history of spinal cord stimulation

“Spinal cord stimulation is used to relieve pain from nerve damage in cases where other treatments have been unsuccessful,” explains Dr. Choi. “It has been used for decades, and we’ve seen significant advances during its use. Because this intervention involves a permanent implant, we are exceedingly careful in recommending it. Patients undergo a seven-day trial before we make a final decision to move forward with the implant. If patients complete the trial with a positive report, we move on to perform the implant.”

How spinal cord stimulation works

“This treatment provides pain relief by implanting a small electrode near the spine,” explains Dr. Choi. “The electrode is stitched to the layers outside the spine. Through careful placement, this electrode directs mild electrical pulses to the nerve, interrupting pain messages. The impulses block the nerve pathways that are sending pain signals from the body to the brain.”

The electrode technology has been compared to that of a cardiac pacemaker; both devices must be attached to a battery power source. “When the spinal cord stimulator is implanted, the attached battery is usually placed in the upper buttock,” says Dr. Choi. “We position the battery with great care. When the battery is properly placed, you won’t feel it. It shouldn’t rub against the waist of your pants or press up against you when you lie on your side. We try to place it so that it is comfortable for you.”

Patients who are good candidates for spinal cord stimulation treatment

“Some patients continue to experience chronic pain, even after multiple surgeries,” says Dr. Choi. “In the past, their surgeons had to deliver the difficult news that surgical options were exhausted. But today, advances in spinal cord stimulation have opened a new door for these patients.”

Spinal cord stimulation is used to treat several different conditions, failed back surgery syndrome among them. Failed back surgery syndrome occurs when one or more back or neck surgeries fail to alleviate persistent pain. This may include low back pain, leg pain, or arm pain.

Where to start

If you think you may be a candidate for spinal cord stimulation, Dr. Choi will be happy to meet with you for a thorough evaluation. “I want to analyze each patient’s situation in its entirety,” says Dr. Choi. “My evaluation includes a range of considerations—everything from the available procedures, their risks and benefits, how they will affect my patient’s lifestyle, and my patient’s comfort level with each procedure. I work with my patients to identify the treatment plan that is best for them.”

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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. “

    More about this expert

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