Like a zombie brought back to life. That’s how the medical team describes respiratory therapist Brenda Sharp following implantation of a spinal cord stimulator to control her debilitating pain. Now, the 50-year-old Kirkland resident is full of energy and is no longer taking opioids to treat nerve damage in her spine. Based on that success, the team at the Northwestern Medicine Center for Pain and Spine Health Bloomingdale is focused on weaning Sharp off nerve medications.

Following two back surgeries in less than three years, Sharp remained in so much pain she could no longer play with her granddaughter, let alone stand for the 12 hours required of her job. She tried a desk job, but the nerve pain would shoot down her leg leaving her miserable and unable to concentrate. High dosages of opioids and nerve medications did little to help the pain and left her in a constant groggy state.

“I couldn’t stand to be touched because the nerves were firing,” said Sharp. “I’m a half-glass full type of person, but I was so depressed by the pain that I didn’t even leave my house. I had to stop working.”

Sharp’s surgeon referred her to Mehul P. Sekhadia, DO, a pain medicine specialist at the Northwestern Medicine Center for Pain and Spine Health in Bloomingdale, Ill. Her surgeries had taken compression off the nerve root, but the nerve was permanently damaged causing chronic radiculopathy.

“Spinal cord stimulation was a great option for Brenda because it interrupts damaged nerve signal focally rather than systemically or at the brain level.  All oral medications ultimately cross the blood brain barrier and may cause unwanted side effects such as cognitive or thinking difficulties, drowsiness, or constipation,” said Dr. Sekhadia.

A spinal cord stimulator is a device similar to a pacemaker. It is implanted just below the skin typically in the back just above the hip. It delivers mild electrical impulses to the spine through small wires called leads. The electric current blocks pain receptors from reaching the brain.

“The spinal cord stimulators have evolved significantly over the past 50 years from a hardware perspective. Most importantly is our understanding of the technology and the various programming algorithms to minimize unwanted stimulation side effects,” said Dr. Sekhadia. “It is our current understanding that damaged nerve signal is the source of many chronic pain conditions such as persistent sciatic pain or back pain after surgery or injury, diabetic neuropathy, chronic post-surgical pain and more.”

Neuromodulation or stimulating the spinal cord creates an energy field locally to interrupt the damaged nerve signal without affecting other areas of the body, most importantly the brain.

“Recent advancements in spinal cord stimulators have been amazing. There are patterns and adjustments that can be individualized for every person to help reduce side effects and deliver more reliability,” said Steven R. Stakenas, APRN, orthopaedic certified nurse practitioner at the Northwestern Medicine Center for Pain and Spine Health. “We are excited about the next generation of stimulators which will offer biofeedback to tell us how the nerve is responding.”

Within a few weeks of implanting the stimulator, Sharp stopped taking the chronic narcotics she had been on for years. She was also on a very high doses of the nerve medication gabapentin which caused her to fall asleep all day. As she is slowly weaned off that medication, she visits the clinic monthly to adjust the neurostimulator using Bluetooth technology.

“Ten months after the procedure, Brenda is a completely different person,” said Stakenas. “When I first met her, she was just a shell and now she is full of life.”

Sharp returned to work as a respiratory therapist and often puts in overtime. She is most excited about the quality time she can now spend with her 6-year-old granddaughter and daily walks with her Goldendoodle puppy.

“Before I had the neurostimulator implant, I was against it. I was in a really dark place because I was in so much pain and I worried it would make things worse,” said Sharp. “But my advice to others in pain is to go for it. The impact has been all positive.  It is like night and day!”

Source: Northwestern Medicine