Breakthrough device helps patients with chronic back pain

ST. LOUIS (KPLR) - It is a breakthrough for those suffering from chronic back pain in St. Louis: a spinal implant that can totally stop the pain.

There is a darkness with chronic back pain no pills can cure.

Deanna Conley, 77 of Florissant, lived in that darkness.

“I sat in a dark room in there, didn’t even answer the door on Halloween,” she said.  “And I like the little kids.  I love to have them come.”

That’s how things were this Fall after nearly 40 years of x-rays, scans, 5 spinal fusion surgeries.

Her children had essentially “lost” the vivacious mother they knew.

“And [we] lost my sister 5 years ago to cancer and this lady just keeps on plugging and going and doing,” said Conley’s daughter, Sherri Schuette, with tears in her eyes.  “When this wasn’t getting better I just kept thinking, ‘what are we going to do?’”

“I couldn’t stand at the sink to wash dishes.  I couldn’t cook a whole meal and I love when they all come to dinner,” Conley said.

Doctor Michael Bottros at the Washington University Pain Management Center (https://pain.wustl.edu/) offered hope.

Conley had more spinal injections, even saw a pain psychologist.

Finally, Bottros suggested a spinal cord stimulator implant:  insulated wire leads are inserted into the “epidural” space which surrounds the spinal cord; electrodes in the wire leads “pulse”; they stimulate the nerves and block pain signals to the brain.

The initial procedure is a one-week trial with the leads connected to an external stimulator.  If there’s improvement, patients can get a permanent implant with a battery implanted under the skin toward the top of the buttocks.

Conley’s results have been mind-blowing.

Dr. Bottros noticed when she walked into the office for her next appointment.  She’d been using a walker or a wheelchair.

She told her priest, it was a miracle.

“I had people everywhere praying for me like crazy,” Conley said.  “That’s what I told Father (my priest).  I said, ‘I got my Christmas miracle. I’m without that walker.’”

“I was really happy to see her walking in.  I saw her walking in from a distance.  I went up to meet her.  I said ‘Deanna how are things going, I haven’t seen you walking in here ever before,’” Dr. Bottros smiled.

“It’s changed her life.  When she says it’s a miracle, many people would roll their eyes.  But it is. She got her life back,” Schuette said.

There’s minimal maintenance.  Conley just leans back onto a blue charging pad for 15 to 20 minutes to recharge her battery.  There’s a wireless controller to adjust the impulses.

“I feel like I got a whole new lease on life.  At my age, you don’t have a whole lot of years left.

I’m going to enjoy them now.  I couldn’t have before,” Conley said.

“There’s a lot of data that suggests that at 5 years’ people are still doing great with these stimulators.  We want to see happens at 10, 15, 20 years,” said Dr. Bottros.

“I’m going to dance at my granddaughter’s wedding!” Conley exclaimed, swiveling her hips.

That epidural space is a sort of "safe zone", Dr. Bottros said.

The procedure is relatively low risk, even being so close to the spinal cord.

He's had 40 to 50 patients get the implants in the past year; nearly all of them have seen remarkable results.