What To Know About Using Electrical Stimulation For Back Pain
For severe, chronic pain that persists despite other treatment, electrical stimulation of the nervous system or muscles is sometimes helpful. A spinal cord stimulator can be implanted and used over a period of weeks or months. There are a few different methods, some of which need to be operated by a therapist, but that can commonly be used by patients at home.
When is electrical stimulation used for back pain?
Electrical stimulation is often used for failed back surgery syndrome, which is pain that surgical treatment hasn’t been able to relieve. It is used for spinal injuries and other types of nerve pain centered on the spine, affecting either the back or the legs. It is also sometimes used to help ease muscle spasms. Often, it is used for ongoing pain that has resisted other treatments, but that does have a known cause.
How does electrical stimulation work?
First, a temporary electrode is implanted as an outpatient procedure. This is connected to a stimulator that typically can be controlled by the patient. There is a test period, where you and your doctor might try different pulse strengths and lengths of treatment to see how your pain responds.
This test period is also used to evaluate for any potential discomfort from the current or other minor side effects, such as headaches. If you respond well initially, a more permanent implant is installed. This requires another outpatient procedure that uses local anesthetic. Your doctor will help determine the best level of treatment, and give you further instructions on how to use the stimulator on an ongoing basis.
You will still need ongoing medical supervision, especially since patients sometimes build a tolerance to the current. It should be noted that this generally does not treat the underlying problem, but is considered a symptom management strategy.
What effect does it have?
This type of electrical stimulation is thought to block some of the pain messages being sent to the brain through disruption of nerve impulses. It is sometimes also thought to promote the release of endorphins, which would promote a general sense of well-being. The electrical impulses can also help muscles to relax in some cases.
Some types of electrical stimulation are thought to help build muscle mass, and therefore fight off atrophy. It can also help to increase blood circulation. Around the spine, providing higher levels of fluids and oxygen will help to promote healing.
What patients are not good candidates?
Patients with some types of pacemakers typically should not use electrical stimulation, as it can interfere with the pacemaker’s operation. Pregnant or nursing women should also avoid this.
Evaluation with your doctor, both of your history of back pain treatment and your general medical condition, will help determine whether or not you’re a good candidate. The doctor can also evaluate whether the underlying cause of your back pain might have a more beneficial direct treatment that hasn’t been tried yet. If so, this should be carried out before trying electrical stimulation for your symptoms.