What Is Spinal Cord Stimulation?

How spinal cord stimulation can help reduce chronic back and extremity pain.

Spinal cord stimulation may help relieve pain and improve quality of life in people with chronic (long-lasting) pain, such as low back and leg pain. Spinal cord stimulation (SCS) may help reduce and manage chronic pain that does not go away with physical therapy, pain medications, injections, or other non-surgical treatments.

Spinal cord stimulation is a form of neuromodulation that works by blocking pain signals in nerves from reaching the brain, where feelings of pain are processed. A spinal cord stimulator is a small device is implanted under your skin. The device delivers a slight electrical impulse that masks or changes pain signals before they reach your brain.  

brain illuminated inside a man's headSpinal cord stimulation works by blocking pain signals in nerves from reaching the brain, where feelings of pain are processed. Photo Source: 123RF.com.

A SCS system is made up of the following components:

  • Neurostimulator: A small device that is implanted under the skin and sends electrical impulses though a wire (lead) to nerves in the spinal cord.
  • Lead: A thin wire that is implanted in the spine and delivers the electrical impulses from the neurostimulator.
  • Remote control: It turns the neurostimulator on and off and increases or decreases the amount of stimulation.
  • Charger: Rechargeable neurostimulators typically require charging approximately one hour every two weeks.

A variety of spinal cord stimulators are available that work in different ways to reduce pain through neuromodulation:

  1. Traditional spinal cord stimulators produce a gentle tingling sensation that masks the feeling of pain.
  2. Burst spinal cord stimulators send intermittent bursts of electrical impulses that are designed to mimic the way the body sends nerve impulses.
  3. High frequency spinal cord stimulators reduce pain without producing tingling sensations.

What Types of Pain Does Spinal Cord Stimulation Treat?

Spinal cord stimulation is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat chronic back or leg pain that is on one or both sides of the body, including pain that remains after back surgery (failed back surgery syndrome).

The most common reason for using SCS is chronic neuropathic back and leg pain—this means back or leg pain that is caused by nerve damage from an accident, injury, or disease. Unlike acute pain (eg, touching a hot pan or stepping on a tack) in which pain serves a protective purpose, chronic neuropathic pain lasts for 3 months or more and does not help protect the body.

Spinal cord stimulation also is used to treat complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS)—a relatively rare condition affecting the arms/hands or legs/feet believed to be caused by damage to or malfunction of the nervous system. In addition, SCS is used to treat peripheral neuropathic pain, which is damage to nerves outside of the spinal cord (typically in the hands or feet) that is caused by an infection, trauma, surgery, diabetes, or other unknown causes.

Appropriate Treatment in All Patients With Chronic Pain?

Spinal cord stimulation should not be used in patients who are pregnant, unable to operate the SCS system, failed a trial of SCS, or are at risk for complications from surgery.

The decision to use SCS is based on your individual needs and risks. Talk to your doctor to see if a SCS trial is right for you.

See our other articles about SCS:


Updated on: 07/26/19
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