Chronic Back Pain Breakthroughs

If you've ever suffered back pain, you're not alone; about eight in ten Americans will experience it at some point in their lives. But there's hope: Doctors and scientists are exploring new treatments to ease temporary and chronic back pain. Here are a few of the success stories.

By Michael J. Weiss from Reader's Digest | July 2007

The “Pain Pacemaker”: Blocking Back Pain to the Brain

Barbara Sweeney’s back hurt for 20 years. The 63-year-old hospice chaplain from Silver Spring, Maryland, had been on an agonizing odyssey of doctors’ visits and treatments. Painkillers, physical therapy, epidural shots, even methadone: Sweeney had tried them all, getting little relief. In 2000 neurosurgeons diagnosed her condition as stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal, which pinches the nerves.

Over the next five years, she underwent two spinal fusions to relieve the stress on her back nerves. But instead of lasting improvement, Sweeney experienced new pains, and her doctors were mystified.

Then, in the fall of 2006, she heard about a “pain pacemaker,” an implantable device introduced by Medtronic in 1969 and modeled after its heart pacemaker. Over the years, the company had refined the device, formally known as a neurostimulator, by making it increasingly smaller and longer lasting. One of its latest models, the RestoreAdvanced neurostimulator, can operate for nine years with a battery recharge only once every four to six weeks. The size of a pocket watch, the device works by sending mild electrical impulses along the spinal cord, blocking pain signals to the brain. “We’re still not sure why stimulating nerves provides relief, just that it does,” says Richard Kuntz, MD, president of Medtronic Neuromodulation in Minneapolis.

With her options dwindling, Sweeney scheduled a pacemaker implantation. After the surgery, “the relief was immediate,” Sweeney says. “The pain was gone.”

Since then, she has thrown away her cane. She now sleeps through the night, and in the spring, she started a water exercise class. “I feel like a new woman,” she says. “I’m finally able to do things I couldn’t do for years.” She pauses, carefully patting a gentle swelling in her lower back. “This little device,” she says, smiling broadly, “turned out to be a miracle.”

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