Implant Can Help Disguise Back Pain, Doctors Say

New technology is giving an old treatment for back pain new life.

Spinal cord stimulation has been used for decades to help patients with chronic lower back pain, but the expensive devices had too many drawbacks, including the need to be replaced frequently and limited battery life.

Now the Food and Drug Administration has approved a new stimulator which lasts ten years and is rechargable.

Doctors at Suburban Hospital inserted the first of these devices in the D.C. area into 48-year-old Joyce Thomas, who has been plagued by lower back pain for more than three years.

“I worked at a convenience store; I was lifting up tote of grocery and went to turn to move it and the pain hit me really bad and I just couldn’t move at all,” recalled Thomas, who has undergone three back surgeries, including two spinal fusions, without significant pain relief.

Dr. John Dombrowski recommended the spinal cord stimulator, which masks pain with a tingling sensation.

“To me it’s just like a tingling feeling,” said Thomas, “like if your hand’s numb and went to sleep and tingling — that’s what feels like.”

During the procedure, two wires, called leads, were inserted around Thomas’ spinal cord. They connect to a small battery containing a computer placed in her lower back. Unlike earlier versions, the new model contains more computer programming options and can be recharged every three months.

“This battery and computer conducts electrical signals to the spinal cord – the signal drowns out the pain patient is experiencing,” said Dr. Dombrowski, an anesthesiologist.

During surgery, Thomas helped the doctors ensure she felt tingling in all areas where she normally experiences pain.

After the procedure, she’ll decide when to use the device with a remote control.

“You can turn it on, you can turn it off, you can change programs — just like you would do watching TV,” he said.

Thomas is optimistic the new device will make all the difference.

“I just want to get back on my feet and be able to do stuff and go back to work,” she said.

Doctors say the device may also be used for chronic arm and neck pain, heart disease, and cancer.

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