Pros and Cons of Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS) for Back Pain Treatment

Spinal cord stimulation (SCS) was approved by the FDA as a valid medical treatment in 1989. Since then, the procedure has been used as a final line of attack against chronic back pain and other pain conditions.

SCS is commonly used to treat:

Non-mechanical (meaning the pain is not worsened by movement) back and neck pain that has not responded to other treatments
Pain after failed back surgery
Peripheral neuropathy (dysfunction of the nerves that carry information to and from the brain)
Complex Regional Pain Syndrome
Refractory Angina

SCS is an invasive surgical procedure. It entails the implantation of electrodes in the spinal canal, a pulse generator in the buttocks or abdomen and soft wires to connect the generator to the electrodes. An external control unit is used by the patient to turn the pulse generator on and off and adjust its output strength. It is thought that the electrical pulses leaving the electrodes interfere with the sending of pain signals to the brain from the spinal cord. For a better understanding of the procedure, see the animated video at

If you haven’t tried conservative treatments like physical therapy and chiropractic care for back pain, then you’re not a candidate for spinal cord stimulation treatment. SCS has not been extensively studied for effectiveness, although a number of sources state that 50-70% of patients who receive the treatment experience pain reduction.


Unlike most surgical procedures, SCS is reversible. If it doesn’t work, the device can be removed.

Only a small incision is required during the procedure.

Many insurance companies cover it, at least in part.

SCS may reduce dependency on pain-killers.

SCS may prevent the need for other, more complex surgical procedures.

When effective, SCS increases quality of life by allowing people to function at work, home and in their communities by freeing them from crippling pain.


Bleeding and infection are risks associated with any surgical procedure, including SCS.

The battery that keeps the pulse generator running may leak or fail.

If the implantation of the leads is done poorly, spinal fluid may leak from the spinal canal and cause headaches.

The electrodes may move over time or scar tissue may form around them, causing changes in the electrical pulses emitted.

Patients with an SCS can’t undergo MRI testing.

One of the biggest spinal cord stimulation risks – one of the biggest risks of any back surgery — is that the procedure might fail. Over time, the body may become resistant to the pulses generated by SCS and pain may return. For some, pain is not decreased to begin with. Not enough information is available to determine exactly what types of back pain respond well to the treatment and what types don’t.

A small 2010 study cast doubt on the effectiveness of SCS in treating pain after failed back surgery. The procedure was compared with other treatment modes and, after 2 years, only 30% of those who received long-term SCS showed improvement. More on this study can be found at

One of the best ways to come to an informed decision about receiving such a procedure is to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible. Reading reviews from those who have undergone SCS is especially helpful. See reviews of the procedure by patients who have received it at

Although the incision required for SCS is small, it is still an invasive surgical procedure. Surgery is a last resort; be sure you have tried every available conservative back pain treatment option before considering spinal cord stimulation.

Technorati Tags: back pain treatment, back surgery, chronic back pain, failed back syndrome, spinal cord stimulation, spinal cord stimulation risks, spinal surgery

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