What is a Spinal Cord Stimulator?

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  • Written By: Erin Oxendine
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 20 October 2019
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A spinal cord stimulator is a device that helps to alleviate pain by blocking certain neurotransmitters. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the implantation of spinal cord stimulators for pain management. Doctors often suggest this device for patients with a history of chronic pain issues.

Most studies show the spinal cord stimulator works best on pain caused by injury or nerve damage. Certain spinal conditions that the stimulator usually helps include spinal damage, misaligned vertebrae, or degenerative disease. Candidates with back problems caused by work-related injuries often get relief from this procedure. Doctors may use it to treat other conditions such as migraines and chronic regional pain syndrome.

A physical and psychological examination is required for individuals considering this procedure. Candidates with pacemakers, certain infections, or significant psychological issues may not be eligible for the spinal cord stimulator. Some blood conditions can also rule a person out as a candidate.

Candidates for the stimulator will have a trial implantation before the permanent spinal cord stimulator is placed. Most doctors recommend the trial procedure to make sure the candidate does not develop complications. If the patient has a successful trial run, the permanent stimulator is implanted.


The stimulator works by having wires surgically placed under the skin, followed by the implant of the stimulator. During the first trial, the stimulator is adjusted for the individual’s pain level. At the permanent placement, the stimulator is ready to block pain by sending a small current of electricity through the wires to the dorsal column.

After surgery for the spinal cord stimulator, doctors may recommend spinal rehabilitation and physical therapy. On occasion, complications may develop after the implantation of the stimulator. Some complications include spinal fluid leaks, paralysis, and nerve damage.

Since spinal cord stimulators are electromagnetic, using other magnetic devices in the vicinity of the patient may be dangerous. Machines that might be hazardous include x-ray machines and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment. Most of the time, patients are asked to carry identification cards. In case of emergency, this card can quickly let personnel know that certain magnetic devices should not be used.

There are many benefits to getting a spinal cord stimulator. Aside from the important benefit of decreased pain, patients may require less medication. Successful recipients may enjoy a better quality of life by having less pain. Most people resume normal activity in about six to eight weeks.

As with any surgical procedure, a patient should talk to his or her doctor about the risks and benefits of a spinal cord stimulator. Doctors estimate that the spinal cord stimulator may only provide a moderate amount of relief for a patient’s pain. For patients who experience a severe amount of pain, any relief is often a huge improvement.


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