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Living with a Spinal Cord Stimulator

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If you’ve found yourself on this blog then it’s likely because you, or a loved one, are embarking on spinal cord stimulation surgery to have the device permanently implanted. 

This kind of surgery can be used as a form of pain management for a range of conditions, from chronic back pain to spinal stenosis. 

So, what is a spinal cord stimulator?

A spinal cord stimulator (scs), at its simplest, is an implanted device that sends low levels of electricity directly into the spinal cord to reduce pain by preventing the pain signal at the source.

The device typically comes with rechargeable batteries, and will last ten or more years, if it is properly maintained and charged by the patient. 

The device is made up of two parts – the electrodes that send the stimulation signals and the generator that powers the stimulator. The electrodes are placed by the vertebrae (known as the epidural space), while the generator is much closer to the surface, usually over the abdomen. 

What are the risks of spinal cord stimulator surgery? 

Because this kind of surgery is minimally invasive, the risks from the surgery itself are minimal. While infection at the site of implantation can always happen, studies show that they’re rare – with only 4.5% of patients experiencing it. 

The primary risk post-surgery is rejection. Given the device is a foreign object, it’s entirely possible for your body to identify it as a threat and attempt to push it out. Your doctor will discuss this with you, but it’s important for the patient to monitor for any symptoms that may suggest this, including:

  • Numbness
  • Pain at site of surgery
  • Headaches 
  • Muscle weakness

How will my life change with a spinal cord stimulator?

So, now let’s talk about living with a spinal cord stimulator and how your life might change. Of course, pre-surgery, there will be a trial period, allowing you to experience the effects and use of the device before it is implanted. During the trial, you can test out whether or not the SCS device is having a positive effect on your pain. You’ll also learn about what to expect after implantation and any restrictions or changes that may come your way once the device is implanted.

But we’ll run through some of them here. 


If you’re a jet setter, and love hopping on a plane then you should be aware that your spinal cord stimulator will be detected by X-ray machines at the airport. Don’t worry though, your doctor should provide you with an official medical ID card that authorizes and explains the device – just make sure you keep it on hand, next to your passport, for your next trip!

Driving & Operating Heavy Machinery

Most doctors do not recommend that you drive with your stimulator turned on – this isn’t because you’re not physically able to, but because the electrical pulses generated could be distracting. The same goes for heavy machinery – if this is a crucial part of your life, then you should speak to your doctor to identify what model of spinal cord stimulator may be best for you. 

Subsequent Medical Treatment 

Once the device is fitted, it’s crucial that you always inform all doctors or medical practitioners before any treatment is given. This is especially true for X-Rays, CAT Scans or MRIs. While turning the stimulator off may be sufficient in these cases, there are some models of the spinal cord stimulator that are not safe for use in these situations. There are also models that are designed to not interfere with diagnostic testing. Ask your doctor about your options in this area.

Living Pain Free

Ultimately, though there may be some minor restrictions put in place post-implantation, this surgery results in pain relief without long term pain medication. Spinal cord stimulation surgery is minimally invasive and gives a real chance for chronic pain patients to experience relief. 

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