Imagine a patient suffering with chronic back pain being offered the chance to find relief through a small electrical device implanted under the skin. The device constantly stimulates the spinal cord with electricity, alleviating the patient’s pain. What has just been described is known as spinal cord stimulation (SCS). It is more common than you think, and technology is making it better all the time.
SCS is a treatment for chronic back pain and neuropathic pain caused by nerve damage. Texas-based Lone Star Pain Medicine says spinal cord stimulation is not considered the first treatment option in most cases. Rather, it is regarded as a second- or third-line treatment after other options have failed. This is not due to SCS being dangerous; it is only because the therapy is highly invasive.
Researched for Decades
Even though SCS has only recently received considerable press, neither the idea nor its implementation is new. Scientists have been researching it since the 1960s. Way back when the research first began, it was believed that pain signals sent to the brain were electrical in nature. Therefore, changing the dynamics of those signals would change how the brain perceived pain.
Many years of research led to the development of small electrical devices that doctors could use to alter pain signals. Much of what was learned in those early years has not changed. SCS is still rooted in using electrical stimulation to alter the signals that nerves send to the brain. What has changed is the technology that powers SCS.
A basic spinal cord stimulator is implanted under the skin and connected to the spinal column with a series of wires. The device stimulates the spinal cord with electricity, replacing feelings of pain with a tingling sensation. As long as the device remains active, pain is relieved.
Technological Advances in SCS
First-generation SCS devices were pretty basic, and they did not offer patients very much control. However, things are changing. A recent news story from WBZ CBS Boston discusses an SCS device that comes with an external remote control. Patients use the remote control to adjust the intensity of the electrical stimulation as needed. They can also change the pattern if they wish.
Another device mentioned by the report was developed in concert with automotive technology. It uses a variety of sensors and sophisticated software to automatically adjust based on patient position. The device may stimulate using one pattern while the patient is sitting, then automatically switch to a different pattern when that person stands up.
It is not hard to imagine future SCS devices that employ artificial intelligence. The use of artificial intelligence would theoretically make it possible for future devices to ‘learn’ a patient’s normal lifestyle and daily routine. Software modifications could be made on the fly to accommodate changes to learned behavior. Artificially intelligent devices might even be able to measure a patient’s pain perception and then adjust automatically.
Try Before You Buy
One of the doctors interviewed for the CBS piece explained that his favorite part of SCS is that it is one of only a few treatments he can offer on a ‘try before you buy’ basis. Simply put, patients can actually try SCS before undergoing surgical implantation. If it works for them, they can proceed with a more permanent treatment. If it doesn’t work, they have lost nothing but the time it took to give it a try.
SCS is by no means a new idea or treatment. It has been around for decades. However, recent advances in technology are making it better. This is good news for patients who have tried other treatments and not found relief.