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Electrical Stimulation May Ease Back Pain

Expert Cautions That Benefits, Risks of Spinal Cord Stimulation Must Be Weighed
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 10, 2010 (Baltimore) -- Spinal cord stimulation may help relieve chronic pain in the lower back, leg and arms, and other parts of the body, preliminary research suggests.

Numerous studies support the use of spinal cord stimulation, which uses an electrical current to treat chronic pain, for the treatment of severe nerve-related pain such as peripheral neuropathy, says Lee-Lee Nguyen, MD, of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

But there is still no strong proof that spinal cord stimulation works.

"And contention exists about its use for other types of pain, such as back pain," she tells WebMD.

So Nguyen and colleagues reviewed the records of 51 adults receiving spinal cord stimulation implants at their institution who had completed a pain questionnaire before the procedure, two weeks afterward, and six months afterward.

Spinal Cord Stimulation for Back Pain

In spinal cord stimulation, a small pulse generator, implanted in the back, sends electrical pulses to the spinal cord. These pulses interfere with the nerve impulses that make you feel pain.

No one knows exactly how it works, Nguyen says.

"We think it's like when you have a mosquito bite on one side of your leg and hit the other side. The bite doesn't seem as bothersome because your body is busy processing the other signal," she says.

Participants in the study were an average of 49 years old, and about half were women. They had suffered from their pain for an average of nine years.

A total of 27 had lower back pain as their primary complaint, 14 primarily had pain in the legs and arms, six suffered primarily chest wall or abdominal pain, three reported primarily groin or pelvic pain, and one had neck pain. About two-thirds suffered from pain in two or more of these areas.

Spinal Cord Stimulation for Chronic Pain

Participants were asked to rate the intensity of their pain and how much their pain interfered with daily activities on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the worst possible pain or interference.

On the pain intensity scale, scores dropped from an average of 8 points before the procedure to 6.5 points at two weeks and 7 points at six months.

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