Spinal Cord Stimulation: Your Experience

Pain messages travel over nerve pathways to the spinal cord, inside the spine. The spinal cord carries the messages to the brain. Constant pain messages can cause long-term pain that's hard to treat. This is known as  chronic pain. Spinal cord stimulation uses a medical device to send signals to the nerve pathways inside your spinal cord. These signals help block the pain.

Your healthcare provider does a stimulator placement in two stages. He or she does a trial stage to see how well it works for you. If the trial stage is a success, the permanent stimulator system is put in place.

Before you agree to this procedure, ask the healthcare provider these questions:

  • Why do I need this procedure?

  • Are there any alternatives?

  • How many times have you done this procedure?

  • What are the complications?

  • When will I see the results?

If you don't feel comfortable asking these questions, ask a family member or friend to come with you to ask them. The answers are critical to your health and safety.

Woman sitting at table, talking to doctor.

Getting ready at home

Your doctor will advise you on how to get ready for the procedures. Tell your doctor what medicines you take, and ask if you should stop taking any of them. Don't eat or drink for 8 hours before you check in for the procedures. Certain criteria must be met to be a good candidate for the spinal cord stimulation device.

Placing the trial leads

Your doctor will place the trial leads under the skin on your back through a small incision. One end of the leads is placed near your spinal cord. Your doctor will attach the other end of the leads to the stimulator power source. He or she will then adjust the stimulator to the right level. For the trial stage, you wear the power source outside your body.

The trial stage

Your doctor will instruct you to keep a second pain log during the trial stage. You can compare this log with your first pain log to show how well the stimulator system is working for you.

Placing the permanent system

If the trial stimulator works well for you, a permanent system might be indicated. This must be done in the hospital. Prepare for it as instructed. The receiver or the power source is implanted under the skin on your abdomen or buttocks. The power source is small, so it won’t show under your clothing. Some devices are rechargeable After the system is in place, the settings are checked to make sure they are at the right level for you. If needed, the device can be removed at any time. Not all these systems are MRI compatible. Find out from your doctor if you still can have an MRI once the system is installed.

After the procedures

You may stay in the hospital overnight. The implant site will be sore for a few days. The leads need some time to become fixed so they don’t move around. Your doctor will tell you what activities to avoid for the next month or so.

When to call your doctor

Call your doctor right away if you:

  • Have fever over 100.4°F ( 38°C)

  • Have chills

  • Have pain, drainage, or increased redness at the implant site

  • Don't feel the stimulation anymore

Also call your doctor if the pain symptoms return.