Nerve Stimulators

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Nerve stimulators can be a useful option when chronic pain doesn’t respond to physical therapy, medication or surgery

What are nerve stimulators?

Electrical nerve stimulation is an option for individuals who have unsuccessfully tried other pain management options. It is especially useful for those who experience failed back surgery, complex regional pain syndrome, seizures or multiple sclerosis.

Like other pain treatment methods, however, nerve stimulation can decrease in effectiveness over time as the body’s tolerance to it builds. It is also a relatively new technique that has so far been under-researched.

Types of nerve stimulators

A popular type of nerve stimulation that does not involve a surgical component is known as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). This method works by attaching two electrodes to the skin in an area that is experiencing pain. This creates a circuit of electrical signals that can directly reach nerves and interfere with the normal pain signals that are being sent to the brain. It also encourages the body to produce endorphins which act as a natural painkiller.

TENS is low-risk and can be used to treat conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia and tendinitis.

There are two additional categories of nerve stimulation: peripheral nerve stimulation (PNS) and spinal cord stimulation (SCS). Each type uses an implanted pulse generator to send low-voltage electrical signals to a desired location.

How PNS and SCS nerve stimulators are administered

A trial run is a crucial step before nerve these stimulation treatments can be carried out. A doctor will insert a temporary electrode under the skin that can be controlled by the individual who is experiencing pain. If pain is successfully alleviated and proper pulse strength is determined then a small, permanent stimulator will be implanted after a local anesthetic is administered in this outpatient procedure.

Coated wires called “leads” will connect the stimulator to the nerve or spine. The patient is either given control over the device and directed how and when to use it or the device is pre-programmed. It is typical for a stimulator to run for an hour or two at a time several times per day. During each use, it is normal to feel tingling in the affected area.

Risks of using implanted nerve stimulators

There are several possible side effects of nerve stimulation including:

  • Infection – if bacteria is present when the stimulator is inserted or gets into the incision before it can heal then infection can set in
  • Headache – migraines can result from regularly stimulating the spinal cord
  • Hardware failure – like any device, the stimulator can break or cables can become disconnected
  • Spinal fluid leakage – spinal cord stimulation can cause fluid to leak if protective membranes are punctured
  • Bladder issues – stimulating the spinal cord, especially in the lower back, can result in loss of bladder control
  • Fibrosis – scar tissue has the potential to develop around the implant

Individuals with an implanted nerve stimulator are also prohibited from receiving magnetic resonance imaging tests.


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