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Electric device helps treat chronic back pain

Technology that's been used for other ailments now holds new promise for people with low back pain.
October 14, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
In a single year, 67 million Americans will report having back pain. Chronic nagging back pain can be so debilitating that it can rob you of simple pleasures like playing with your kids. Technology that's been used for other ailments now holds new promise for people with low back pain.

For the first time in five years, Maria Tricoli is enjoying playing with her kids. Chronic back pain kept her from caring for her family.

"It's a gnawing, sometimes burning, sometimes stabbing -- it can stop me in my tracks," said Maria.

Maria tried everything from massage to herbal medicine.

"I saw more than 27 different specialists. I must have done physical therapy six separate times," said Maria.

In 2010, the pain forced her to give up her job.

Finally, a doctor suggested a spinal-cord stimulator, a device surgically implanted to send electrical pulses to the spinal cord. In theory these pulses interfere with the nerve impulses that make you feel pain.

It's been around for decades, but it's becoming more popular now with doctors moving away from the use of painkillers.

"I think spinal-cord stimulation is an excellent option, especially for people who have failed all other therapies," said neurosurgery Dr. Nader Pouratian.

Because Maria participated in a trial, she got hers for free, but now that it's FDA-approved, many doctors are concerned $35,000 is a lot to pay for a surgery, which like any surgery comes with risks. And medical experts say there are questions about its long-term effectiveness.

"We found in our study and others that most patients continued taking narcotic-type painkillers even after they've had this type of a device implanted. And the literature suggests that the benefits tend to wear off after six months to a year," said clinical researcher Dr. Richard Deyo.

It's been two months and Maria is grateful to feel relief.

After surgery, patients are instructed on how to use the device at home. Patients typically use it for one to two hours, three or four times a day.

Many say the stimulator creates a tingling feeling instead of the pain.


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