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Office of Neuroscience Research > WUSTL Neuroscience News > Spinal cord stimulation relieves back pain without opioids

Spinal cord stimulation relieves back pain without opioids

From the WUSTL Newsroom...

Doctors who treat patients suffering from back pain are exploring new approaches that help some patients avoid opioid drugs. The highly addictive prescription painkillers are fueling an epidemic of abuse and overdose deaths.

One opioid-free option available at the Washington University Pain Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital involves stimulating the spinal cord with very short pulses of electricity. Patients can’t feel the electrical stimulation, yet it often effectively can mask the perception of pain.

Spinal cord simulation to relieve pain is not new. It first was introduced many years ago, but older stimulators produce a tingling sensation designed to replace pain with less unpleasant tingling. The newer, high-frequency spinal cord stimulators deliver more energy but without the tingling sensations.

Pain specialists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis were involved in clinical trials of the new stimulation devices; in 2015, the FDA approved the devices as a treatment for back pain. Most but not all insurance plans cover treatment.

As many as one in three Americans suffers from low back pain. Its economic impact is greater than that of heart disease and cancer combined.

“Patients have many treatment options, but many don’t get relief after surgery or injections,” said Michael Bottros, MD, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and director of the acute pain service at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “Opioids can help some patients temporarily, and physical therapy also helps, but the new-generation stimulators fill an important niche, helping people return to normal activity without pain or the side effects that can result from opioids.”

Deanna Conley, 77, of St. Louis County, has endured back pain for years. Despite multiple surgeries, she needed a wheelchair last fall to travel any significant distance. In addition, she began to worry about the number of pain pills she took each day.

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