Spinal Cord Stimulator Implant

What Is Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS)?

The exact mechanism behind spinal cord stimulation is not fully understood.  However, doctors believe that the electrical pulses generated by the device stop pain signals from reaching the patient’s brain.

Who Might Benefit from SCS?

This medical device might provide relief for patients who are suffering chronic pain in their legs, arms, and/or back.  If other, non-surgical treatments for back pain have not been effective for you, ask your doctor if you would be a candidate for SCS.

What Devices Are Part of a Spinal Cord Stimulator Implant?

  • Battery/Pulse Generator: A small device that creates the pulses and is placed under the skin in the buttocks or abdomen for permanent placements.
  • Programmer/Control: A device that allows the patient and doctor to control the SCS.
  • Lead:  The lead is the wire that connects the electrodes to the pulse generator.
  • Electrodes: At the end of the lead, the electrodes deliver the electrical pulse to the area.

What Happens During the Surgery for a Spinal Cord Stimulator Implant?

In most cases, the procedure occurs twice. The first procedure is considered a “trial run” to ensure that the device has been placed in a way that provides the patient with an acceptable level of pain relief.  After the injection site has been numbed, an epidural needle is inserted into the region.  Alternately, the temporary leads (wires) may be inserted through an incision instead of through the epidural needle.  Regardless of the means of insertion, the leads are directed into the epidural space.  The lead will be covered with secure bandages and the patient may be given about a week to see if SCS is able to reduce the patient’s pain.  An external device (the trial stimulator) sends electrical pulses through the lead to the electrodes; these pulses block pain signals from reaching the brain.

If the patient and physician determine that the implant is effective, then arrangements will be made for a second procedure to make the spinal cord stimulator implant permanent.  While the patient is under general anesthesia or sedation, the temporary lead is removed and a permanent lead is then inserted via the incision or epidural needle. The next step is to implant the pulse generator (includes the battery) under the patient’s skin; to do so, a small incision is necessary.  The two most common locations for placement of this device are the abdomen or buttocks.  The pulse generator is then connected to the lead, and the incision is closed.

After the procedure for the permanent SCS implant, the patient is given an external control.  The control has a wire and at the other end is a wand that communicates with the internal pulse generator.  Using the keypad on the control, the patient has the ability to turn the system off or on; the patient can also adjust the level of stimulation that is being sent to the electrodes or switch to a different type of program.

What Is Recovery Like for a Spinal Cord Stimulator Implant?

Swelling is common for a few days following the surgery.  The patient may also feel discomfort that should resolve in the same amount of time.  Be sure to bring up any complications that you may be experiencing in the post-operative appointments with your spine surgeon.

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