People suffering from chronic pain are used to pain, related symptoms, and complications from their condition. But, what about pain and complications from the treatments they receive? Spinal cord stimulators are an innovative way to manage pain, but they do have a recovery period. Here’s what you need to know about spinal cord stimulator implant recovery.

What is a spinal cord stimulator implant? 

A spinal cord stimulator uses small, thin wires implanted in your epidural space (between the spinal cord and the vertebrae) to deliver a mild electrical current. This electrical current helps to disrupt pain signals to your brain and replaces them with a mild buzzing sensation. You control the current intensity and timing. When pain breaks through, you can simply use a remote control to signal an implanted battery pack to emit the mild current for relief. Other stimulators are programmed to deliver the current at specific intervals.

Spinal cord stimulator implants can help treat chronic pain that has not responded to more conservative treatments. Some conditions that benefit from spinal cord stimulation include:

The spinal cord stimulator procedure begins with a trial stimulator. During this trial, the battery pack remains on the outside of the body, but the leads are placed in the epidural space. This allows you and your doctor to gauge how you respond to this treatment. If your pain is relieved, you are a good candidate for a permanent spinal cord stimulator implant.

The basics of spinal cord stimulator implant recovery

Spinal cord stimulator implant recovery is unique to each patient, so it’s best to speak with your doctor directly. They can give you answers tailored to your situation.

Here are some of the basics of spinal cord stimulator implant recovery, along with answers to frequently asked questions.

What’s the typical spinal cord stimulator trial recovery time?

You will generally know within a week if this treatment is right for you.

During the week, you may experience soreness and swelling at the site of the leads. You may also feel some discomfort, but this period is temporary and just to test the treatment. In general, you’ll want to take it easy for the week that your trial leads are in place and note any changes in pain levels.

What about the permanent device?

Your permanent spinal cord stimulator implant recovery period is longer than the trial. When your trial is successful, your doctor will implant the battery pack (also called a generator) in your lower back, buttocks, or hip—wherever is most comfortable for you. This procedure can again lead to swelling and pain at the surgical site.

Additionally, the trial leads will not be replaced but will instead be fixed in place with sutures. This keeps them in their designated area and allows you to move more freely after you heal.

Expect to engage only in light activity for at least two weeks after your surgery. Most patients are healed completely by four weeks post-surgery, but it can take up to 12 weeks.

Are there any restrictions after a spinal cord stimulator implant?

After both the trial and permanent surgery, try to limit physical activity. This includes exercise or any work that involves twisting, stretching, or reaching overhead. These actions can cause your stimulator leads to move away from the treatment area. You can resume slow, gentle walks a few days after surgery, but take at least two days off to rest and recover.

As noted, lifting heavy loads can dislodge the spinal cord stimulator implant leads. For at least the first two weeks, do not lift anything heavier than five pounds. Once your incisions are healed, you may begin to gradually increase physical activity. Always talk to your doctor to be sure.

Other important spinal cord stimulator recovery instructions and restrictions include the following:

  • Do not drive with the stimulator turned on
  • Carry your medical card noting that you have a spinal cord stimulator implant with you at all times
  • Carry this card with you while flying, as your device will show up on airport scanners
  • Some SCS systems may not be compatible with MRIs (CT scans are okay)
  • Follow up with your doctor if the stimulator is not working or you need to reprogram it

What is the spinal cord stimulator removal recovery time?

If you need to have your spinal cord stimulator removed, the spinal cord stimulator removal recovery time is generally brief. It should take between two to four weeks for complete healing, but as with all medical procedures this varies from patient to patient.

When will I experience pain relief?

A spinal cord stimulator implant is considered successful when you experience at least a 50% reduction in pain. You should know within the week of your trial implant if a spinal cord stimulator is right for you.

Should I do any at-home care?

The most important at-home care instruction is to rest while you recover. It can be challenging to stay still and limit activity during your spinal cord stimulator implant recovery period, but this will help keep the leads in place and functioning well.

You may experience some discomfort for a few days after both your trial and permanent implants. This can be treated with over-the-counter pain medications, used as directed by your doctor. You can also apply ice for any swelling in a 20-minutes-on, 20-minutes-off cycle.

Be careful to keep the incision site clean and dry. During your trial period, you will not shower or take baths. This keeps your bandage in place and dry. You can take sponge baths. After your permanent implant, you can shower after two days, taking the dressing off, but avoid baths for six weeks.

Your doctor will have a complete set of recovery instructions. It is important that you follow them closely. If physical therapy exercises are recommended, wait until you are recovered to begin them.

Learn more about spinal cord stimulation 

At Wake Spine & Pain, our highly experienced team has performed hundreds of spinal cord stimulator trials over the last 12 years with great success. Our team is committed to delivering timely care for pain patients in the Raleigh area.

We work hard to diagnose the cause of your pain fast, so we can develop a treatment plan that works for you. Most patients are scheduled within 48 hours for their first consultation, with both in-clinic and telehealth options.

It’s time to relieve your pain and reclaim your life. Contact Wake Spine & Pain today to schedule your appointment.