It was 1965 when Canadian psychologist Ronald Melzack and British neuroscientist Patrick David Wall first proposed electrical neurostimulation as a treatment for certain kinds of pain. Just six years later, the world’s first spinal cord stimulator was implanted in a patient. In the 50 years since, spinal cord stimulation (SCS) has come a long way.
Improved technology and a better understanding of the nervous system has given rise to promising new therapies based on Melzack and Wall’s original proposals. Not only is spinal cord stimulation (SCS) now an accepted treatment for certain kinds of pain, but it is also being investigated as a treatment for everything from paralysis to Alzheimer’s disease.
SCS for Neuropathic Pain
Lone Star Pain Medicine is a Weatherford, Texas clinic that specializes in treating chronic and acute pain. They say the most common utilization of SCS right now is treating neuropathic pain. This is pain that can be traced directly back to central or peripheral nervous system damage. On their website, Lone Star cites diabetics as prime candidates for SCS.
People living with diabetes frequently complain of sharp, stabbing pains in the feet and hands. Their disease has damaged the nerves in their extremities, resulting in pain that can be quite uncomfortable. Because there is no way to repair those nerves, pain has to be addressed by either blocking pain signals or masking the perception of pain.
Unfortunately, some patients with neuropathic pain are extremely sensitive to even the slightest touch. For them, the pain can be completely debilitating. They are excellent candidates for SCS for obvious reasons. SCS interrupts pain signals so that they never reach the brain.
SCS for Treating Paralysis
Just as SCS can relieve neuropathic pain by interrupting pain signals, it has also proved useful in replacing signals that the body is not properly sending. A case in point is a recent study published in the Nature Medicine journal. The study looked at three men suffering paralysis as a result of spinal cord injury. All three received spinal cord implants that send electrical signals to the brain, signals the nervous system isn’t sending on its own.
All three can now stand. They can walk and ride bicycles. They can even swim. Engaging in these activities is not as seamless as it is for others, mainly because they have to engage software that tells their implants which nerves to stimulate and how to stimulate them. Nonetheless, SCS now has them doing things they could not do before.
SCS to Prevent Fainting
In another remarkable case, doctors were looking to treat a woman with a rare condition that causes her blood pressure to dramatically plummet every time she sits up or tries to stand. The poor woman is basically nonfunctional because she constantly faints. SCS has turned out to be the answer.
In her case, sitting up or attempting to stand will cause a drop in blood pressure and a subsequent loss of blood flow to the brain. Fainting is the inevitable result. But by implanting a spinal cord stimulator, doctors found a way to tell blood vessels in the woman’s body to constrict on activation. The constriction keeps her blood pressure where it needs to be. She can now sit up and stand. She can even walk hundreds of yards with the help of a walker.
SCS has come a long way since its basic premise was introduced more than 55 years ago. Today it is not only a treatment for pain, but it also offers promise for people suffering from all sorts of conditions affecting the central and peripheral nervous systems.