“What a remarkable concept!” That was Betty Thomas’ response when she first heard about peripheral nerve stimulation (PNS), an increasingly relied upon approach to chronic nerve pain that involves implanting a small electrical device next to a peripheral nerve in order to interrupt pain signals to the brain.
“It was hard to believe that something relatively simple—involving only outpatient surgery—could so quickly erase most of the excruciating pain I was feeling,” said Thomas.
But almost a year after having a PNS implant, Thomas says her life is a “world of difference” from the days when she had difficulty with everyday activities such as walking and grocery shopping.
Thomas traces her debilitating back pain to a surgery several years ago that left her with two rods in the lower back. Although the surgery was initially successful, as time passed she began to experience escalating pain.
Her surgeon referred her to Dr. Sassan Hassassian at the National Spine & Pain Centers Manassas, Virginia office.
In putting together a plan for reducing Thomas’ pain, Dr. Hassassian began with the most conservative treatment options first. Over a period of several months, he administered a series of injections containing a corticosteroid medication to reduce inflammation and promote healing in the lower back.
When the injections failed to provide long-lasting pain relief, Dr. Hassassian moved to radiofrequency neurotomy, which uses special radiofrequency needles to apply thermal (heat) energy to the irritated nerves that are generating the pain.
While the radiofrequency neurotomy provided some pain relief, it was not enough to return Thomas to the level of functioning she needed. Even though she was retired from her position as a trainer for AT&T, where she worked for 28 years, she had become the primary caregiver for her husband. “I needed to get him to doctor appointments and be of assistance in many ways,” said Thomas.
When Dr. Hassassian suggested testing PNS therapy, Thomas was eager to trial the treatment that sounded so promising. In an outpatient procedure lasting less than 45 minutes, Dr. Hassassian used small probes to implant temporary wires with electrical leads on the tips along the painful peripheral nerves. When the electrodes were turned on by an external battery-operated stimulator, a small amount of electrical current was introduced to the targeted nerves, masking the pain signal.
“I knew within half a day that the stimulation worked for me,” said Thomas. “I just didn’t have the same level of pain anymore.” Instead, Thomas felt a tingling sensation where the hurt had previously been.
After the three-day test period, Thomas scheduled an outpatient appointment to have the stimulator battery permanently implanted under the skin. (It’s quite small, much like a pacemaker for the heart).
When pressed to name any downside to PNS, Thomas admits that she has to recharge the internal stimulator battery for several hours a week and, although not necessary, she likes to do this while seated. She says she uses the time to catch up on her cross stitching or quilting. The battery is charged externally via a wireless power charger.
Occasionally, Thomas still needs some pain medication, but it’s a minimal amount.
Thomas expresses tremendous gratitude to Dr. Hassassian:
In addition to being brilliant, he takes the time to listen to you. He did a great job of explaining the more complicated aspects of each treatment to me; together, we were able to make the right decisions for my health.” – Betty Thomas