Pain Management Techniques to Help Conquer Back and Neck Pain
Procedures - Spinal Pumps and Stimulators
Intradiscal Electrothermoplasty (IDET) is an unproven minor procedure used to treat low back pain. Back pain and sciatica can be caused by degenerative disc disease, which may include disc bulging or herniation. These conditions can cause nerve impingement, inflammation, and pain. During IDET and under x-ray guidance, a needle is inserted into the affected disc. A special wire is then threaded through the needle into the disc. After the wire is properly positioned, it is heated. The goal of the procedure is to destroy the small nerve fibers that have invaded the degenerated disc. IDET causes the annulus (disc wall) to partially melt. This is turn triggers the body to grow new protein fibers to reinforce the annulus.
Radiofrequency Discal Nucleoplasty is similar to IDET. It is a newer procedure. A needle is inserted into the disc. Instead of a heating wire, a special radiofrequency probe is inserted through the needle into the disc. The probe generates a highly focused plasma field with enough energy to break up the molecular bonds of the gel in the nucleus essentially vaporizing some of the nucleus. The result is that 10-20% of the nucleus is removed, which decompresses the disc and reduces the pressure both on the disc and the surrounding nerve roots. This technique may be more beneficial for sciatic-type pain than IDET, since nucleoplasty can actually reduce the disc bulge pressing on the nerve root. The high-energy plasma field is actually generated at relatively low temperatures minimizing the danger to surrounding tissues.
• Pumps and Stimulators
Patient-Controlled Analgesia (PCA) is used to treat post-operative pain. The device is equipped with a pump that is attached to the patient's intravenous line (IV). It is programmed to dispense the correct dose of pain-relieving medication directly into the bloodstream. The patient is given control over pain by operating the PCA with a hand-held push-button mechanism. Once past the acute pain stage, the patient is switched to oral medication. The doses administered by PCA are smaller and available more frequently. Pain relief is consistent. This helps to prevent sleepiness and weakness allowing the patient to ambulate sooner. It has been proven that PCA reduces the overall amount of medication needed to control pain.
Spinal Pumps are called intrathecal (intra-thee-cal) spinal pumps. Intrathecal refers to the fluid containing space that surrounds the spinal cord. The benefit of administering pain relieving medication through a spinal pump is that medications taken orally are diffused throughout the entire body. A spinal pump delivers pain-relieving medication precisely where it is needed. This treatment is considered after standard conservative treatments have been ineffective or have caused intolerable side effects.
The pump is surgically implanted beneath the skin of the patient's abdomen. A catheter is run to the level of the spine from where pain is transmitted. Medication is pumped directly into the spinal fluid allowing for a much more potent effect on the spinal cord. This drastically cuts down on the amount of medication needed and provides better pain relief with fewer side effects. The pump is refilled every 1-3 months by inserting a needle through the skin and into a diaphragm on the surface of the pump. Several different medications can be administered this way. Since the system is beneath the skin, the risk of infection is minimized and the patient can be fully mobile and active.
Spinal Stimulators. Instead of medication to relieve pain, spinal stimulators use electrical pulses on the surface of the spinal cord to reduce pain. The stimulators are similar to pumps in that they are surgically implanted beneath the skin but differ in that electrical signals are used to ease pain. Electrical signals are passed through the tip of the catheter at the precise location near the involved segment of the spinal cord. The result is a tingling over the painful area, which eases pain. Current theory is that the electrical current input alters the spine's processing of the pain so that the patient's pain is reduced. The patient is able to control the stimulator by holding a magnetic pulsing device over the skin on top of the implanted generator disk. The stimulator appears to be effective for patients with back and leg pain that spinal surgery did not relieve. There is data that shows that these patients will do better with the placement of a stimulator than they will with repeat surgery.
As we learn about neuroplasticity, we have learned that good pain management starts with prevention. When possible, physicians should strive to reduce the intensity and duration of acute pain. When pain does persist, then a multidisciplinary approach is often most effective. In severe cases, when pain does not respond to usual treatments, then the more invasive techniques such as nerve blocks, spinal pumps, and spinal stimulators should be considered. It is not always possible to cure the cause of pain - but it is usually possible to reduce pain and suffering.
This article is an excerpt from Dr. Stewart G. Eidelson's book, Advanced Technologies to Treat Neck and Back Pain, A Patient's Guide (March 2005).