Get Your Life Back

Implanted spinal cord stimulator hijacks pain signals to brain.

Gail Stavru can hardly remember when she wasn’t beset with back problems. A retired elementary school art teacher, Gail credits her involvement in a number of auto accidents as the cause of her incessant pain.

Gail Headshot

Gail Stavru

The fact that so many physicians refused to treat her only made the situation worse.

“I went to two neurosurgeons, and neither wanted to touch my back because there were so many issues,” confides the Massachusetts native. “They said if they started working on one vertebra, they’d end up having to work on the next one and then the next. They couldn’t guarantee I’d get enough relief from the surgery to make me happy.”

Gail’s pain radiated into her legs and hips, but early on, she described it mostly as an “annoyance.” Still, it was bad enough to keep her from easily performing many routine activities, including household chores. As time went on, the pain intensified and made performing even simple tasks uncomfortable.

“At first, the pain was more of an aching, and that made it difficult to do things like lift a basket of clothes off the floor,” Gail describes. “Or I could wash the kitchen floor, but then I’d have to rest or not do anything else until hours later. Eventually, the pain impaired everything I did.

“It got so bad that I couldn’t stand at the kitchen sink for more than 30 seconds before I had to sit down. It usually started as a dull ache, then ended up as an intense, sharp pain. I put up with that for about a year and a half, then I decided I had to try again to get help for it.”

Prompting her decision was an article she read in Florida Health Care News about the pain-relieving treatments offered by Kai McGreevy, MD. Gail decided to give his methods a try.

Dr. McGreevy is a board-certified neurologist and pain management specialist at McGreevy NeuroHealth in St. Augustine. He uses a variety of techniques to relieve his patients’ pain and improve their quality of life.

During his initial visit with Gail, Dr. McGreevy ordered an MRI that revealed severe disc degeneration on multiple levels. To treat the problem, the doctor ultimately settled on spinal cord stimulation, or SCS.

Pacemaker for Pain

Spinal cord stimulation was introduced about 40 years ago, and has been evolving and improving since. Today, SCS may be used for back pain, neck pain, pain down the leg or arm from nerve damage, diabetic neuropathy, crush injuries, even angina.

“Spinal cord stimulation is one of the only interventional pain therapies available to provide 24/7 treatment of chronic pain,” asserts Dr. McGreevy. “It’s been shown to be effective for the majority of patients, including those who have already undergone spine surgery. It can also reduce a patient’s need for long-term narcotic medication.”

With SCS, a small device that applies electrical impulses to the pain source is implanted in the epidural space around the spinal cord. SCS can reduce the feeling of pain and replace it with a more comfortable tingling sensation. The device can also be programmed to have no replacement sensation at all.

“It’s like that back and hip pain took years off my life. But the spinal cord stimulator gave them back to me. I’m so happy.” – Gail

In treating Gail, Dr. McGreevy began the therapy by first recommending a trial to predict the success of the SCS in providing meaningful pain relief and functional improvement. The three-day trial is a “test drive” before the permanent stimulator is implanted surgically.

During the trial, Dr. McGreevy uses x-ray guidance to place small electrodes into the epidural space where the pain is generated. When the system is turned on, pain signals from the problem area to the brain are hindered.

“The moment I placed the electrodes appropriately and started Gail’s trial, she had significant relief,” observes Dr. McGreevy. “It was a degree of pain relief she hadn’t experienced for many years. That relief was sustained throughout the entire trial.

“Gail was able to proceed with more activity than she had been able to do previously, and she could indulge in her daily routine with much more ease. She took less pain medication and was ultimately functioning better than she had functioned for at least 10 years.”

Based on the trial, Gail was referred to a neurosurgeon to have the permanent stimulator implanted. During that procedure, a small paddle electrode was placed along her spinal cord near the origin of pain. The lead was connected to where her stimulator’s charging unit was implanted (in her case, just underneath the skin on her right hip).

Gail compares her spinal cord stimulator to a pacemaker for the heart, the difference being that the spinal cord stimulator affects pain signals going to the brain.

“After a few weeks of healing from the surgery, I went back to Dr. McGreevy’s office,” she relates. “They programmed this little unit that looks like a cellphone. I use that unit to choose between eight programs, depending on which part of my body is causing me pain. I can also use it to make the stimulation higher or lower according to my pain level.”

Visible Improvement

Dr. McGreevy notes that Gail was an ideal candidate for SCS. She had exhausted all other conservative treatments before opting for the trial. The doctor adds that Gail was an informed participant in making the decision to proceed.

Gail standing in her garden.

SCS treatment helps Gail tap into her creative side.

“I find that, for patients, being educated through face-to-face time with the physician and having the motivation to do well are very large predictors of success,” he states.

“I take time with my patients to understand their anxieties as well as seek out ways I can help support them. This is more of the art of medicine than the science, but paying attention to the little things actually makes a big difference. I think we were able to accomplish something very special for Gail.”

Gail agrees. With her back pain greatly reduced by the spinal cord stimulator, she can complete her chores with no interruption or discomfort. She’s also capable of performing tasks she hadn’t been able to do for years due to the pain.

“I’m back to doing some gardening and all the activities I used to do,” she enthuses. “I went to a dinner engagement with some people I hadn’t seen since before I got the spinal cord stimulator. One of the women looked at me and said, Oh my, you must be feeling better. When I asked how she knew, she said, Before, the pain showed in your face.

“Other people have told me I look much better now, and I feel much better, too. I feel like I can do anything. It’s like that back and hip pain took years off my life. But the spinal cord stimulator gave them back to me. I’m so happy.”

Gail gives credit for her success with SCS to Dr. McGreevy. She’s grateful he was so dedicated to relieving her pain and returning her to an active lifestyle.

“I think Dr. McGreevy is wonderful,” she muses. “Some doctors have an attitude of suck it up when it comes to pain, but not Dr. McGreevy. He always checks with me to see if I’m comfortable. If I’m in pain, he adjusts the settings on my stimulator unit.

“I tell everybody I know who has a back problem about McGreevy NeuroHealth and spinal cord stimulation. Thanks to Dr. McGreevy and his treatment, I feel like a normal person again.”

© FHCN article by Patti DiPanfilo. FHCN file photos. mkb
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