Millions of people have chronic back pain and many days of work are lost as a result. But now a ‘magic’ implant could mean a life free of pain. Catherine Scott reports.
For three years Donna McEnery lived in constant pain. Even a cocktail of strong painkillers – including morphine which left her feeling like a zombie – failed to relieve the pain, which started to affect her emotionally.
“I was in a really bad place. I couldn’t stand the thought of spending the rest of my life on strong painkillers, unable to drive, or have a family, and trying to sleep propped up on the sofa.
“The pain was unbearable and it starts to affect your mental health,” says Donna, 37 from Cawthorne.
Now, thanks to a device implanted at the base of her spine and controlled and charged by a battery pack she carries in her handbag, Donna is at last pain-free and getting back to her old self. She now wants to raise awareness of the device, called a Spinal Cord Stimulator, and the Leeds team.
“It is amazing. This tiny device and this incredible team have given me my life back.”
Donna had been married just two months when a dog scared her 22 year old horse Indie.
“I lost control and fell. I heard a crack and knew that I was seriously injured,” recalls Donna, now 37. She’d suffered multiple fractures to her ribs, known as a flail chest, and also a punctured lung. “I was struggling to breath and I was really frightened as I was on my own, but the owner of the dog came along and I managed to tell him to get my mobile phone out of my pocket and told him to call an ambulance and my husband.”
The air ambulance and a road ambulance attended, but due to the severity of Donna’s injuries and the landing site of the ambulance it was felt she should go to Barnsley hospital by road.
She was admitted to Intensive Care where she stayed for two weeks before being transferred to the High Dependency Unit.
The pain was excruciating and she was given morphine through an epidural directly into her spine. But it was once she was sent home to recuperate that Donna said her problems really started. “I just couldn’t get away from the pain,” she recalls. “I couldn’t sleep in my bed, so for nearly three years I slept propped up on pillows on the sofa. The pain was constant and after a while it starts to affect you emotionally. I stopped going out or meeting friends as you don’t constantly want to sound like you are moaning, but it takes over your life. Lack of sleep is debilitating.”
Despite this Donna went back to work after just six weeks. “I had to keep busy although it was very difficult, work were very understanding, I am used to working and being independent, but I couldn’t even lift up my arms to wash my hair, or get dressed properly.
“It was really hard on my husband. We’d only been married for a few weeks and suddenly everything changed, I changed.”
Doctors tried a variety of different treatments to try to alleviate Donna’s pain from injections to a cocktail of drugs, but nothing really worked.
In the end, a consultant suggested she see an anaesthetist in Leeds who was working at the forefront of pain relief implants.
“I was so desperate I would have tried anything. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life on morphine. I wasn’t in a very good place emotionally.”
Donna was referred to Dr Ganesan Baranidharan, consultant in pain medicine at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, based at Seacroft Hospital.
A Spinal Cord Stimulator works by using electrodes placed in the space close to the spinal cord, connected to a battery implanted in the abdomen or buttocks.
The battery sends signals to the spinal cord, mimicking natural patterns found in the brain, modifying pain signals and changing the way a body perceives pain,
Donna at last had hope that she might be able to live a pain and drug-free life.
But after three operations it appeared that she might be the one in ten for whom a Spinal Cord Stimulator does not work. “We were running out of options but Dr Baranidharan said there was one more type of implant they could try.”
Donna was sedated but awake though most of the procedure.
She realised almost immediately that this final procedure had worked.
“It is hard to put into words but after nearly three years of virtually constant pain it stopped. It has changed my perspective on life, I am so grateful and no longer take simple things like getting dressed for granted.”
And Donna, who is a senior marketing manager in Leeds, has even plucked up the courage to get back on her horse, Indie.
“I was frightened at first but I have been riding since I was five and it is something I love.
“I am nervous and if I see a dog I do get scared about what might happen but if I want my old life back then it is something that I have to do.”
And Donna is not alone in experiencing such miraculous results.
Carol Bourne, Clinical Nurse Specialist at Seacroft said they carried out 150 similar operations last year at a cost of around £30,000 each but more people could be helped. Around 4.7 million people in the UK suffer chronic nerve pain.
“Anyone with neuropathic pain which usually arises from an accident or injury could be helped by the Spinal Cord Stimulator, but we just need to get the word out there that these people don’t need to live in pain,” says Carol.
“Many people who come to us are desperate and in the vast majority of cases they leave pain-free and no longer on strong medication.
“It is the most rewarding job I have ever done.”
The Burst DR spinal cord stimulator works by altering the pain signals as they travel to the brain.
A generator, similar to a cardiac pacemaker, sends a stimulation pulses to nerves to a thin wire called a lead.
The lead delivers these pulses to nerves along the spinal cord.
The pulses modify the pain signals as they travel to different parts of the brain.
The effect of the pulses is to change the way your body perceives pain.
Patients who think they might benefit from the device undergo an assessment and are fitted with a temporary lead and an external device to see if they would benefit from it.