I received my Boston Scientific Precision Spectra spinal cord stimulator implant in December of 2018. Since we have received many hits on our website and questions from members about spinal cord stimulators, our team decided that I should share my story and experience with you.
A little bit of background.
In June of 2017, the pain in my low back and left leg had become debilitating enough that I could no longer work. Actually, it had gotten to the point where I couldn’t even walk, unless assisted, and even then it was incredibly painful. (Eventually, my left leg would stop working entirely.) June 20, 2017, was my last day working outside the home.
From that point until December 2018 when I received my implant, I underwent:
- 10 months of physical therapy
- Three epidural spinal injections
- One SI Joint injection
- Two piriformis muscle injections
- An EMG study
- Multiple MRIs, X-Rays, and CT Scans, and
- A Myelogram CT Study
I had seen two orthopedic specialists, two orthopedic neurosurgeons, one hip specialist, two pain management and intervention specialists, one spinal neurosurgeon, and a partridge in a pear tree. No one could figure out why I was in so much pain in either my back or my leg, and the pain was only getting worse.
I made the personal care choice not to use narcotics or opioid pain medications because we couldn’t find the cause of my pain. Additionally, addiction runs in both sides of my family. I wanted to get to the root of the pain; pain, after all, is the symptom, not the disease.
The spinal neurosurgeon recommended that I get a spinal cord stimulator implant.
My pain management specialist agreed with the neurosurgeon; we were simply out of other options. So, December 14, 2018, I received my temporary spine cord stim implant from Boston Scientific and embarked on a six-day trial to ensure that I would experience a great enough change in my quality of life to justify moving forward with the permanent implant.
This process is fairly unique. There aren’t many implanted medical devices that you can try before you buy, so to speak. In my case, my pain was reduced by about 50-60%, so I decided to go ahead with the permanent implant. In the article, Spinal Cord Stimulation Surgery for Chronic Back Pain we discuss the different types of spinal cord stimulation devices. Mine is a rechargeable device.
How does the implant work?
This device is designed to send electrical pulses to your spinal cord to overstimulate it and cut off pain signals from the affected body part(s) to the brain. Instead of feeling pain, the patient feels a sort of tingling sensation. If you’ve ever used a TENS unit for pain management and muscle rehabilitation, the feeling is very similar… except it’s on the inside of your body.
There is a battery pack with two electrical leads placed in the epidural space of your spinal cord, targeting the nerve roots that are believed to be causing the majority of your chronic pain. In my case, the leads were placed near the 4th and 5th vertebrae in my lumbar spine, to target the pain signals traveling from my leg to my brain.
The main difference between the temporary spinal cord stimulator implant and the permanent implant is that with the former, the electrical leads and battery pack are on the outside of the patient’ss body, with small holes going into the spine from where the leads extrude. For this reason, the patient is at high risk of infection during the trial. I had to take antibiotics daily for the entirety of the trial and for a few days beyond.
Some things you may not know to expect or ask about.
You can read full details about the surgical procedure and recovery expectations in our article on spine stimulation. I am speaking from personal experience based on my own surgery and type of mplant.
If you receive a rechargeable implant, In addition to the implant, you will receive a rechargeable remote control, a battery back for recharging the implant, a charging station for the battery pack, and a belt. The belt has a little pocket to hold the battery pack and this has to be placed over your implant to recharge it properly.
When you move, your leads move.
Especially during the trial implant when the electrical leads are not anchored permanently or stitched into place, the leads will shift and move as your body moves. If you cough, laugh, straighten your posture, etc. you will feel the stimulation much more intensely. It can be quite shocking! (See what I did there??)
It’s not painful when this happens, just intense and surprising. I have heard, though, that some people find the tingling sensation very bothersome. For that reason, my particular stimulator has a setting we call “No feel.” The stimulation is still on and doing its job, but I can’t feel it when it’s in this setting. Patients are directed to drive with the “No feel” setting activated.
What recovery looks like.
Something to note about the permanent implant surgery for my particular model is that the battery pack is about the size of an oreo cookie. The doctor makes a small pocket out of the fascia tissue in a patient’s love handle area, wherein to place the implant. The first and third days post-op were the worst for me because it was a deep muscle pain I experienced.
Full recovery takes 4-6 weeks, and you may as well err on the side of caution and take it easy, because if those leads are tugged out of place, you may be in for another surgery to correct their placement. The things I wasn’t allowed to do for six weeks post-op included:
- Lifting (nothing heavier than a gallon of milk!)
- No workouts outside of walking on a treadmill
No reaching, bending, or twisting, means no showering or washing your hair, scrubbing your legs, etc. for weeks. How did I get around that? Shampoo wipes, dry shampoo, and disposable, rinse-free body wipes. I have to say, all things considered, this surgical recovery was much easier than others I’ve endured.
Don’t forget to charge your spine!
If you get a rechargeable implant, I would recommend charging your unit for 30-40 minutes per day if tolerable. Your remote manages the different settings of the implant and monitors the battery level of the implant and the remote.
If you allow the battery to die completely, it can take 4-6 hours to charge the battery. But that becomes complicated because your little battery charger pack can only be used for two hours at a time and then has to be recharged itself. And if you’re a chronic back pain patient, odds are you’re not going to be very comfortable if you have to sit up with your charging belt on for hours at a time.
My stimulator definitely helped control the pain in my left leg and improved my quality of life. However, when I got the implant you may recall that no one knew why I was experiencing my pain and other symptoms. Lead migration is one of the main risks of having an implant placed. It may be that the growth of scar tissue moves things a bit, or that you don’t do as good of a job as you think at following post-op protocols.
In my case, my leads migrated because I had two subsequent neurosurgeries. First, I had a cervical discectomy and spinal fusion. Then, after discovering a ruptured disc that had formed a mass of calcification at my thoracolumbar junction, crushing my spinal cord, another discectomy and quadruple fusion had to be performed.
I’m lucky because even though my leads migrated some due to the subsequent surgeries, they are still close enough to each other that they impact the targeted nerve roots. Settings are adjustable and I have seven different programs for my implant. Each program creates a different type of sensation or no sensation at all. I have my own rep with Boston Scientific that I work with and meet at the hospital any time my settings and programs need adjustment.
Before my two back surgeries, I had to keep my spine stimulator at about 60% power throughout every day. Now, after the two back surgeries and the discovery and removal of endometrial tissue that was crushing my sciatic nerve, I keep my implant at about 11% power. My battery stays charged for weeks now!
Hopefully, you have read the full article Spinal Cord Stimulation Surgery for Chronic Back Pain in addition to this blog, and have a better understanding of what these devices can do. If you have been living with chronic back pain and tried all of the lesser-invasive procedures and treatment plans to no avail, I definitely recommend speaking to your specialist(s) to see if you might be a good candidate for a stimulator implant.
It’s also worth noting that my particular implant model is safe for use in MRIs. That was a concern for me since we still didn’t know what was wrong in my spine at the time of the implant, and I knew there would be more scans in my future. Not everyone is a good candidate for these implants. Further, the implants do not cure pain, only control it for a better quality of life. It is up to you to decide whether the impact is great enough to move forward with an implant.