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Spine-tingling tale has happy ending for Blue Island woman

Arlene Ver(right) Blue Islis leading an active lifestyle after receiving spinal cord stimulator. She is pictured park with family friend

Arlene Vera (right), of Blue Island, is leading an active lifestyle after receiving a spinal cord stimulator. She is pictured at a park with family friend Anah Webster. | Supplied photo

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Spinal cord stimulation

What is it? A small device implanted in the back or buttocks that sends a continuous low-voltage electrical current to the spinal cord to block pain in the legs, trunk and arms.

What kind of pain does it treat? Pain caused by bulging spinal discs, arthritis in the joints of the spine when it compresses nerves, scar tissue in the spine from surgery, complex regional pain syndrome and congenital problems.

How do you know if it will work on your pain? Patients have a trial period before the device is implanted.

What if it doesn’t work? The procedure is totally reversible.

Source: Dr. Dragan Gastevski

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Updated: August 19, 2014 6:09AM



Arlene Vera, of Blue Island, goes to church on Sundays now.

She recently took a family friend’s young daughter out to fly a kite, is planning a trip to the zoo later this month and shops at flea markets to indulge her passion for antiques.

She relishes every outing. For the past two years, Vera, at 72 years old, wasn’t able to enjoy her life much. In fact, she spent most of her time in bed, in agony with leg and hip pain, the result of a burst disc in her spine.

“It started out like someone was hammering nails in my feet,” she said, “then it just kept moving up. It felt like a thousand bees stinging my legs.”

She said her doctors tried pain medications, but the ones they thought would be most effective were contraindicated in her due to some medical considerations. Spinal injections didn’t work for her, either. She knew she had to do something. She was in continuous pain, even when in bed at night.

Finally, she found Dr. Dragan Gastevski, an anesthesiologist who specializes in pain medicine at Advocate South Suburban Hospital. He recommended spinal cord stimulation, which proved Vera’s salvation from pain. The relief was immediate.

“It was a lifesaver,” she said. “I was in constant pain all the way up to my hip. Now I’m pain-free in my feet and legs and my hip. ... It was like a godsend to me. Truly it was.”

Spinal cord stimulation, sometimes called neurostimulation, involves a small device implanted in the back or buttocks that sends a continuous low-voltage electrical current to the spinal cord to block the sensation of pain.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, 50,000 neurostimulators are implanted worldwide every year. It treats chronic pain in the back, legs and arms and is a completely reversible surgery. Treatment can be discontinued at any time and the implanted parts turned off or removed.

“Essentially, there’s nothing to lose by trying it,” Gastevski said. “The lead can come out at any time.”

Gastevski said patients are first given a trial period before the device is actually inserted. A needle is used to thread one or more wires, or leads, into the epidural space just above the spinal cord as the patient lies down, asleep after some sedation anesthesia. During the next week, patients wear a belt containing a small generator and are given a remote control to dial the signal up or down to best control their pain at different times of the day or during various activities.

If it works, the patient comes back for a second procedure during which the generator is implanted under the skin. No belt is needed after that except to recharge the batteries now and then. Gastevski said the batteries today last “12 years plus.”

The spinal cord stimulator works, he explained, by targeting nerves that relay the sensation of pain to the brain. The procedure has been around for 40 years, he said, but only recently has the technology been so fine-tuned.

Gastevski said he can implant one or several leads, each one specific for a different part of the body. A patient, for instance, might have one lead that controls daytime pain in a knee and another that controls nighttime back pain. The devices may not have to be turned on all day long, either.

“Most people don’t use it 24/7,” he said. “Some people use it an hour and get 10 hours pain relief.”

When on, the device does cause a buzzing or tingling effect, which can bother some.

“I’ve found that when their pain goes away, they don’t mind,” Gastevski said of the sensations. “When I hear a patient say, ‘This dramatically changed my life,’ that makes your day.”

Gastevski said when patients come in with chronic pain, he will try other treatment options first, such as medications or injections. In some cases, such as when the nerve is compromised, surgery is the best option. But spinal cord stimulation can be used in many scenarios, he said, and should definitely be considered.

Vera would agree.

“I could drive, but if I did one or two things, I just had to lie down,” she said. “I was taking pain pills all day long. I tell you, this gave me a new lease on life.”

Additional source: www.aans.org.



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