Going Beyond Medication to Treat Chronic Pain
StatePoint | 8/13/2014, 2 p.m.
Nearly 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain — that’s more than the number of people living with heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined. Often experienced as pain that lasts over three to six months, chronic pain is a serious and debilitating condition that, if left unmanaged, can negatively impact nearly every aspect of your life.
Chronic pain is the leading cause of long-term disability in U.S. and is a significant burden to the health care economy and society as a whole. It costs as much as $635 million annually in direct medical treatment costs and low productivity, according to government statistics. Surprisingly, 40 percent of work absences are due to back pain, second only to the common cold.
Zac Cover, a former fire fighter and triathlete, knows the devastating impact of chronic pain. In 2006, the Floridian was hit by a car while cycling and suffered multiple injuries, including broken ribs, a badly injured leg, fractured arm and severed nerve in his broken collarbone.
He underwent seven operations and was bedridden for nearly six months. While the surgeries corrected the physical damage to his body, Cover was left with excruciating pain that lasted for years. His doctor prescribed medication that helped ease the pain but left him foggy-headed, with a poor memory and unable to enjoy activities he loved.
After months of trying other unsuccessful treatments, Cover’s doctor recommended neurostimulation, also known as spinal cord stimulation (SCS) -- an advanced therapy option used to manage chronic pain in the arms, legs and trunk, and pain caused by failed back surgery. SCS involves implanting a small device (the size of a silver dollar) along the spinal cord where it emits low intensity electrical pulses that intercept the body’s pain signals before they reach the brain, replacing feelings of pain with a more pleasant tingling sensation.
Dr. Timothy Deer, president-elect of the International Neuromodulation Society, says he has seen an increase in the number of people receiving SCS. “Spinal cord stimulation is an important therapy option for patients who have not been able to alleviate their chronic pain through traditional methods, such as back surgery or pharmacological options,” Deer said. “Studies have shown SCS can reduce pain by 50 percent or more, and patients have the option to try a temporary implant to see if they’re comfortable with the therapy.”
Over time, Cover was able to resume almost all his normal activities -- like biking, swimming and running -- because he can now better manage his pain. In fact, he was able to draw from this experience and began working as a clinical specialist at St. Jude Medical, the company that manufactured his device. He now works with patients also suffering from chronic pain who have or are about to receive SCS systems.
Cover urges others suffering from chronic pain to talk to their doctor about the best treatment option for them. “Spinal cord stimulation has given me back a life I didn’t think I would have again,” he said. “My pain level is much lower and I’ve been able to stop taking pain medication. It’s dramatically transformed my quality of life.”