Electricity being used locally to treat chronic back pain

There are alternatives to opioids for pain management. These are available at local clinics // WSBT 22 photo

Some people are finding relief from chronic back pain through electricity. It is an alternative to opioids that has actually been around for decades. A local pain management doctor says she is recommending spinal cord stimulation to her patients – many of which are asking how they can control their pain without medications.

Pamela Williams can load her fridge with water and stand at the sink and do dishes.

Those simple tasks were nearly impossible a year ago.

“I had to have help to just do the dishes because I couldn’t stand long enough to do them,” says Williams.

For a decade, the South Bend mother of six struggled with back pain caused by a car accident. She was mostly confined to her recliner and using a walker to get around.

“I literally didn’t move anymore,” says Williams.

Not only that, she was on loads of pain medications that made her feel like a zombie.

“At that point I said enough is enough. There has got to be a better answer than just swallowing pills all day,” says Williams.

Her life changed a year ago. While searching a Facebook group for chronic pain sufferers, she learned about spinal cord stimulation. It is a device that is implanted in a person’s back and delivers electrical stimulation to the nerves along the spine.

“The simplest way to think about it is the electrical impulses are confusing the nerves so you don’t get the sensation of pain. Instead, some people feel tingling. Some don’t and just say the pain is better,” says Dr. Kathryn Park.

Park is a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor at the South Bend Clinic.

She says many patients like Williams are looking for alternatives to opioids to treat their pain. That is why she recommends patients try the spinal cord stimulation.

“This is what is beautiful about this. This is not medication. It is purely electricity. So nothing goes through your kidneys or your liver,” says Park.

Park says patients can try out the treatment before the implant is inserted surgically. If they like the way it works after the 5 to 7-day trial, an outpatient procedure is required to permanently implant the stimulator.

Williams uses the treatment all day, every day. The only time she cannot use it is while she drives. Williams is able to control how it feels.

“I put this pad over the battery,” she says as she holds up a small plastic paddle and places it near where the implant is on her back.

“I can change the feel from a tingle to a ticking or a light thump. It just depends on what kind of a day I’m having to what I want it to feel like,” says Williams.

This technology has been around for decades. Park says it doesn’t work for everybody and some insurance companies won’t cover it. But she says, for patients that enjoy the treatment, it is life changing. Some patients have been able to stop taking opioids, become more active and lose weight.

“The whole goal is to decrease patients dose and if possible wean them off,” says Park, “So we are trying to find alternative measures.”

This has become increasingly important as the opioid epidemic grows. Recently, Indiana Congresswoman Jackie Walorski introduced a bill that could increase access to non-opioid pain treatment options. Park says that is a step in the right direction.

“I think if we can get more and more of these out there we can help people,” says Park.

For Williams, “it really did change my whole life,” she says.

Williams is mostly off her pain meds and that walker is now in the shed where it will stay.

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