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Spinal Cord Stimulation: Risks and Benefits

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Risks and benefits
As with any surgical procedure, there are risks, including:

  • Infection
  • Bleeding
  • Headache
  • Allergic Reaction
  • Spinal Fluid Leakage
  • Paralysis

In addition, there are some risks that are specific to the spinal cord stimulator. These may include:

  • Stimulation stops or only works intermittently

  • Stimulation occurs in the wrong location

  • Over-stimulation

  • The lead could move or become damaged
    (this may require surgical repositioning or removal)

  • Poor system connection

However, there are also numerous benefits to using this type of therapy, including:

  • Spinal cord stimulation allows you to be in control of your pain relief - you decide when it is needed

  • Since the system is portable, you should be able to resume all of your usual daily life activities at home and at work

  • You can travel, since your pain relief travels with you (keep in mind that sitting for long periods of time can increase pain)

  • You will be able to participate in most recreational activities such as walking, swimming, and gardening

  • Alleviating some or all of you pain will have a positive effect on your mental outlook, decrease stress, and improve your overall quality of life

Things to Keep in Mind:
Since spinal cord stimulators utilize electric impulses as well as magnets, there are a few precautions users must keep in mind, including:

1) Do not drive or use heavy equipment while the stimulator is activated. However, you can use the stimulator if you are a passenger.

2) Spinal cord stimulators may set off metal detectors (such as in airports). You will be given special identification that certifies you have a spinal cord stimulation system. Be sure to carry this with you to get you through these checkpoints.

3) Anti-theft devices (such as in retail stores) may temporarily increase stimulation if your system is on when you walk through. This will not harm the system, but may not be pleasant for you. It's usually best to turn off the stimulator before walking through any of these devices.

4) When flying, airline personnel may require you to turn off the stimulator during take off and landing.

5) Normal household equipment, such as cell or portable phones, computers, TVs, microwaves, and other appliances are safe to use with the stimulator. The stimulator should not cause any interference with these items.

6) The magnet on the stimulator control device may cause damage to certain items or erase information on items with magnetic strips such as bank or credit cards, video or audiocassettes, and computer disks. The magnet can also stop watches and clocks, so you may want to store the magnet at least two inches away.

Is it right for you?
While there is no guarantee that spinal cord stimulation will alleviate all of your discomfort, most patients report a 50% - 70% decrease in pain. This decrease can make your pain much more manageable and allow you to return to a more active life. Not everyone can benefit from this therapy; however, it might be worth a visit to your spine specialist to see if you are a good candidate.

Updated on: 09/07/12
Lawrence M. Kamhi, MD, FIPP
Doctor Dawson's article about spinal cord stimulation is a very good introduction to this important modality for selected patients with chronic spine pain. It is a mature technology and therapy.
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