Patients undergoing neurostimulation treatments receive low voltage electrical signals directly into the spinal chord or specific nerves in an attempt to block the feeling of ‘pain’. Generally used to block pain emanating from areas lower than the neck, neurostimulation is becoming more popular in a culture that feels overwhelmed with the high volume of medications being prescribed for nearly every medical situation, especially pain.
There are two primary configurations for a neurostimulation system. The first one must be surgically implanted and is completely internal. The other configuration has both external and internal components. For any internal configuration, the battery and nerve connectors are implanted surgically. External systems have surgically implanted leads that also have a radio-frequency receiver, while the battery and an antenna is externally worn.
The concept of neurostimulation and how it is used to relieve pain is actually quite simple. Pain is a signal that is sent from one part of the body to the brain. Constant pain that stems from an extremity signifies a steady stream of ‘pain’ signals being sent to the brain. All of these signals travel to the brain by way of the spinal chord. It is a mass of nerves that connect the brain to each part of the body, and likewise, connect each part of the body to the brain. If the ‘pain’ signals traveling to the brain can be ‘interrupted’, then the brain will not receiving the news that an area of the body is hurt or damaged.
Rather than ‘cutting’ off specific nerves or blocking signals altogether, neurostimulation actually activates other nerve fibers, which are in fact, pain-inhibiting. Once activated, these pain-inhibiting fibers actually masks or dull the strength of the pain signal reaching the brain, overall leading to less pain being felt. The activation of these pain-inhibiting fibers also brings forth a tingling sensation. The primary conditions with which neurostimulation is used as a treatment for are all chronic in nature and include, arachnoiditis, complex regional pain syndrome, and failed back syndrome.
The goal of neurostimulation is to reduce and relieve pain, instead of attempting to eliminate pain altogether. In fact, tests have shown that when applied correctly, the majority of patients can feel pain reduce by nearly 50%. Other effects include an increase in activity levels, and a substantial reduction of the use of any medications of a narcotic nature. However, the underlying benefit is possibly an overall improved quality of life.
With so many medications being prescribed for nearly every medical ailment, alternatives are aggressively being sought after. As technology advances and new discoveries in treatment are made, patients will receive better care and are more likely to live pain free lives. Neurostimulation as a treatment continues to develop and although pain is currently only reduced by as much as 50%, technology will continue to advance and we may one day see pain reduced by much higher levels. For those who live in constant and chronic pain, these developments cannot arrive too soon.