Medical Miracles: Pain's End
When Joanne Williams was in her twenties, a day of shopping meant an evening lying on a heating pad. She kept shopping, kept playing softball, kept bowling (groaning and clutching her lower back after the third game). But at 33, when she started teaching high school, standing all day made the pain unbearable. She spent the next three years seeing one doctor after another, taking pain meds, doing physical therapy, and eventually having spinal fusion surgery.
After a long recovery, her pain was still there—and spreading into her legs. She read about neurostimulation and thought, “Why not? I’ve tried everything else.”
The concept’s brilliant: A device tricks the brain by sending an electrical signal that travels faster than the pain signal, filling receptors so there is literally no room for
pain. Williams is tiny, so her doctor threaded the leads (they reminded her of spaghetti noodles) up her spine and brought the cord around, implanting the device under her navel. The device did provide some relief, but its vibrations intensified whenever she lay down and weakened when she stood—exactly the opposite of what she needed. Plus, if she turned it up high, “it was like lightning going through your spine,” she says.
Dr. Scott Purvines, a neurosurgeon with the Orthwein Brain & Spine Center at St. Luke’s Hospital, suggested a new device: a Medtronic AdaptiveStim with RestoreSensor. “It’s sort of like your iPhone,” he says. “It senses whether you’re upright or supine and self-adjusts.” That meant no lightning bolts up the spine. Now, she can’t even tell the device is on unless she sits very quietly. “Then I feel a low hum inside,” she says. “It’s comforting, like a massage chair in the mall.”
Constant pain, or a massage chair? Finally, she had an easy choice.