Spinal Cord Stimulation as a Treatment of Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

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Chapter 8 Spinal Cord Stimulation as a Treatment of Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

Chapter Overview

Chapter Synopsis: Failed back surgery syndrome (FBSS) is the term used for chronic neuropathic pain that persists or reoccurs after a surgical procedure on the lumbosacral spine. FBSS patients comprise the largest population of recipients for spinal cord stimulation (SCS) in the United States, but patient selection is a key factor in successful SCS treatment, which is generally defined as a significant reduction in pain. This chapter reviews the research data that contribute to our understanding of how SCS works to alleviate pain and discusses the techniques used for SCS treatment. The basic science literature shows that SCS modifies activity of wide dynamic range (WDR) neurons and the release of many different neurotransmitters. Imaging data should be used to assess the patient’s presurgical spinal anatomy for patient selection and to ensure proper electrode implantation. Selection of the proper device, placement location, and stimulation pattern are also key factors in optimizing SCS success. The SCS screening trial is the best indicator of a patient’s potential to respond favorably to treatment.

Important Points:

Clinical Pearls:

Clinical Pitfalls:


Failed back surgery syndrome (FBSS) is the name given to the chronic pain syndrome that occurs when a surgical procedure involving the lumbosacral spine culminates in persistent or recurrent pain.

By 1985, investigators recognized that FBSS is an important public health problem affecting 25,000 to 50,000 new patients each year.1 Many causes have been implicated for the development of FBSS, including inappropriate patient selection criteria for lumbosacral surgical procedures, shortfalls in the surgeon’s diagnostic or technical skills (operation not indicated, wrong site, incomplete decompression, and/or fusion),2 and inadequacies in available surgical techniques.

In the United States, FBSS is the primary indication for spinal cord stimulation (SCS), even though SCS is not the primary therapy for FBSS. SCS is a modern application of the ancient use of electricity to treat pain (in ancient times healers used current generated by electrical fish).

Electrical stimulation with implanted devices followed the 1965 publication of Melzack and Wall’s gate control theory of pain3 and the development of cardiac pacemaker technology. Today SCS is delivered with sophisticated techniques that take advantage of multichannel pulse generators powered by rechargeable batteries.

By reducing the level of pain associated with FBSS, SCS can allow patients to decrease or eliminate use of pain medication, improve their physical functioning and ability to engage in the activities of daily life, enhance their quality of life, and return to work. The success of SCS, however, depends in large part on the physician’s ability to (1) select appropriate candidates, (2) use the right equipment to treat a specific pain condition, and (3) implant and adjust the equipment in an optimum manner.

Establishing Diagnosis

Diagnosing FBSS seems fairly straightforward in patients suffering from persistent or recurrent pain following a surgical procedure on the lumbosacral spine. However, because FBSS has many possible etiologies, identification of the syndrome is merely the first step in meeting its treatment challenges.

The assessment of an FBSS patient should be multifaceted and should follow the same procedure used for any chronic pain syndrome. Review of the patient’s history and operative record (which should be sought routinely) helps to establish the underlying diagnosis. The presence of any issues of secondary gain, psychological or behavioral problems, or co-morbid pain conditions is of interest. A thorough pertinent physical examination helps to corroborate the diagnosis. A validated numeric rating or visual analog scale (VAS) can help to determine the intensity of the pain and follow the patient’s progress.4 Imaging studies provide valuable information that will guide treatment. Abnormalities revealed by imaging studies and the physical examination should be consistent with the patient’s pain. The patient might demonstrate nonorganic responses (Waddell signs) during the physical examination,5 but organic findings should predominate.

Specific prognostic factors have been identified for patients with FBSS concerning the likelihood that they might benefit from SCS. For example, the extent to which the patient’s pain is radicular is important (relieving axial low back pain with SCS is technically more difficult than relieving radicular pain).6,7 Technological advances, however, continue to permit clinicians to improve outcomes and extend the circumstances in which SCS is indicated for FBBS.


FBSS often occurs because a surgeon has assumed that a patient’s pain was caused by an anatomical abnormality that could be corrected with a surgical procedure. The same or similar anatomical abnormalities, however, might occur in asymptomatic individuals.8 Indeed, in consecutive patients with FBSS, Long and associates2 reported that most did not meet standard indications for their first surgical procedure. Treatment of FBSS with a repeat surgical procedure remains indicated, however, if a patient has a large disc fragment or severe stenosis compressing a nerve or nerves and causing a significant neurologic deficit or if there is gross spinal instability.

Computer modeling of the electrical fields produced by SCS in the spinal cord9,10 revealed current and voltage distributions consistent with those found in studies of cadavers and primate spinal cords. The modeling studies have predicted that bipolar stimulation with closely spaced electrical contacts separated by 6 to 8 mm or less would be the best way to target longitudinal midline fibers and that the electrical field between two cathodes bracketing the physiological midline does not sum constructively in the midline.11 Modeling has also predicted advantages for three or more columns of contacts with lateral anodes.12 Clinical experience has confirmed that correct positioning and spacing of SCS electrodes is essential for pain relief.13 The longitudinal position of an electrode largely determines the segmental effects of stimulation; and rather than being beneficial, positioning electrodes more cephalad than the target area commonly elicits unwanted local segmental effects.14

Electrical impulses are more easily conducted through cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) than through any other tissue in the spinal canal. Because the depth of cerebrospinal fluid differs at various locations in the spine, thresholds and recruitment patterns vary; because CSF depth changes as an individual shifts between supine and prone positions, patients usually report that the perceived intensity of stimulation-induced sensation (paresthesia) changes when they change their posture.

Basic Science

Neuropathic pain, which often produces a radiating, burning sensation, results from nerve or nervous system damage. Activation of peripheral nerve fibers in pathological conditions can more easily activate wide dynamic range (WDR) neurons in the superficial laminae of the corresponding dorsal horn, resulting in hyperalgesia (extreme sensitivity to pain) and/or allodynia (pain from normally nonpainful stimuli).

In experimental studies SCS suppressed long-term potentiation of WDR neurons by reducing the C-fiber response15 and also changed the concentration of several neurotransmitters and their metabolites in CSF, including serotonin and substance P,16 glycine, adenosine, and noradrenaline.17,18 Supraspinal microdialysis in conscious rats revealed that SCS causes γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) release in periaqueductal grey matter.19 SCS also induces GABA release in the dorsal horn20 (activation of the GABA-B receptor might be responsible for the therapeutic effect of SCS) and decreases the release of glutamate and aspartate.21 It is likely that SCS has additional, complicated effects on as-yet-unidentified neural transmitters and modulators. SCS is not thought to affect opioid receptor-mediated analgesia because naloxone does not inhibit SCS efficacy.22

In patients undergoing successful SCS treatment to reduce otherwise intractable neuropathic leg pain, positron emission tomography (PET) studies suggest that SCS also modulates supraspinal neurons.23 In these patients SCS increased cerebral blood flow significantly in the thalamus contralateral to the painful leg and in the associated bilateral parietal area, and this was associated with changes in pain threshold. SCS also activated the anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal areas, which control the emotional response to pain.


Imaging studies undertaken to establish the diagnosis of FBSS provide information about the patient’s postsurgical anatomy and whether or not the anatomic goals of the surgical procedure were met. This might explain the failure of the surgical procedure to relieve pain; however, established nerve injury can lead to persistent pain, even after technically successful surgery (Table 8-1). Radiographic imaging studies should reveal abnormalities concordant with the patient’s current pain complaints (see Table 8-1).

Table 8-1 Uses of Imaging Technology in Spinal Cord Stimulation Treatment

Type Timing Purpose
MRI or CT myelogram of lumbar spine Before SCS screening trial Establish diagnosis of FBSS.
Reveal postsurgical anatomy.
Were goals of surgery met?
Are abnormalities consistent with current pain complaint?
MRI or CT myelogram of thoracic spine Before SCS screening trial Rule out pathology contributing to symptoms.
Rule out pathology that would compromise electrode placement.
Aid in planning electrode placement.
Fluoroscopy During SCS procedure Guide electrode placement.
Fluoroscopy or x-ray After SCS procedure Document electrode placement.
X-ray Diagnosis of cause of complication Electrode migration or fracture is possible.

CT, Computed tomography; FBSS, failed back surgery syndrome; MRI, magnetic resonance imaging; SCS, spinal cord stimulation.

Imaging is also used to guide SCS treatment (see Table 8-1). For example, imaging the thoracic spine provides valuable information about the placement of thoracic electrodes. Imaging should take place before the procedure to rule out any pathological condition that might contribute to the patient’s pain or confound (or increase the risk of) electrode placement (e.g., stenosis). Fluoroscopic imaging during the procedure helps guide placement of the electrode and documents the final electrode position. Imaging is also used to diagnose the cause of a complication such as suspected electrode migration or fracture.


To be eligible for SCS, FBSS patients must have pain that is refractory to more conservative care. The definition of “more conservative” is not precise; for example, it is a matter of opinion whether opioid therapy is more or less “conservative” than SCS, and some patients are referred for SCS to avoid opioids. Neuropathic pain is generally more responsive to SCS than is nociceptive pain; distinguishing these is not always straightforward (e.g., FBSS), and a therapeutic trial of SCS might be the most practical approach to determining eligibility. Likewise, radicular pain is generally more responsive than axial low back pain; again, individual cases might be most practically approached by simply offering an SCS trial.

Relative contraindications to SCS include unresolved issues of secondary gain (e.g., an outstanding lawsuit or compensation claim), a major untreated psychiatric co-morbidity, and/or inappropriate medication use. The presence of a demand cardiac pacemaker requires electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring and/or changing the pacemaker mode to a fixed rate.25

Absolute contraindications include uncorrected coagulopathy, untreated sepsis, a patient’s inability to cooperate or to control the device, and/or a projected need for the patient to undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

SCS is problematic if the patient has a separate, co-morbid chronic pain syndrome. As noted previously, before receiving SCS treatment some FBSS patients require a repeat surgical procedure to correct a serious anatomical defect.