As medical technology progresses, newer and more effective methods of treating chronic pain are emerging. For so long, people with chronic pain were left with limited treatment options and often felt trapped, physically and emotionally, by their pain. Now, treatment options created nearly 75 years ago are being revamped with modern medicine to address this problem, and a prime example of this development is known as deep brain stimulation (DBS).
DBS is not a brand new procedure, but the benefits of using it as a treatment for chronic pain are just being discovered. So, what exactly is DBS? And is deep brain stimulation effective for treating chronic pain? Let’s take a closer look below.
What Is Deep Brain Stimulation?
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is the process of stimulating or activating certain areas of the brain as a means to control undesirable health symptoms. The purpose of DBS is to get electrical signals to a specific area of the brain based on the conditions and symptoms that the patient has. These electrical signals can help to reset the brain, in a way, and either lessen the severity of the symptoms or help them go away entirely.
When the brain has abnormal activity, it can result in substantial symptoms and conditions that vary widely. But generally speaking, DBS is most commonly known to treat symptoms of the following conditions:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Movement disorders
With these conditions, people might have abnormal activity or chemical imbalances that cause trembling, involuntary muscle movements, mental health distress, and more. The goal of DBS is to get electrical signals to the parts of the brain that are triggering these symptoms. With the pulses hitting those areas, it can help to regulate how the body responds.
How Does Deep Brain Stimulation Work?
Prepping for DBS can only be done through surgery. In this surgery, medical experts ensure patients are fitted with the right tools and have the knowledge it takes to get through the surgery, recovery, and the subsequent treatment plan.
Moreover, deep brain stimulation works in three distinct parts:
- The electrode/lead—The lead or electrode is an insulated wire. This wire is surgically placed through an opening in the skull and in a specific area of the brain that needs to be targeted. The electrical signals will go through this wire and travel to the part of the brain to which it is attached.
- The extension wire—This wire goes under the skin of the head, neck, and shoulder. It works to connect the lead to the neurostimulator.
- The internal pulse generator (IPG)—The IPG is a device similar to a pacemaker. It goes underneath the skin, usually in the upper region of the chest. This is where the electrical signals will generate before traveling through the wires and to the brain.
Once the device is assembled, it’s programmed to send signals at a frequency that depends on what the person needs. In some cases these electrical signals can be sent at all hours of the day for nonstop treatment of symptoms. This is one of the biggest advantages of DBS.
Additionally, there are not many risks associated with DBS, and recovery is relatively simple. From there, the side effects patients might experience could include headaches, vision changes, worsened mental health symptoms, and vertigo. For many people who are good candidates for deep brain stimulation, the potential rewards outweigh the possible risks—particularly in scenarios where it improves one’s quality of life.
How Can This Be Helpful for People with Chronic Pain?
The brain is the central hub for pain—any part of the body experiencing discomfort, illness, or pain will send signals to the brain to indicate that something isn’t right. Sometimes, these signals can misfire or be overactive. This is especially true in cases where people have distressing medical conditions, mental health concerns, and/or chronic pain.
A common treatment method in these cases is actually prescribing medication that can slow down the signals that the nerves shoot back up to the brain. By slowing them down, the brain does not perceive as much pain at once and is better able to cope. Of course, medication doesn’t always work. And neither do other pain interventions.
The truth of the matter is that chronic pain is a constant battle to treat. It can make it challenging to connect with others, make a living, and simply enjoy life. This is why having methods like DBS can bring some hope to patients who are feeling as though they just have to live with their discomfort forever.
Moreover, DBS is meant to change the way the brain perceives pain. Rather than receiving signals from the body about the pain all the time, the brain becomes preoccupied by the electrical pulses. And alhough this doesn’t treat the root cause of the pain, it has the ability to alleviate some discomfort. With less pain, people see an overall improvement in their quality of life. They often feel less drained, less depressed, and more motivated to do certain things that will improve their health in the long run.
Currently, research is limited on the effectiveness of deep brain stimulation for chronic pain. However, preliminary studies show promising results. As with any health decisions, it’s vital to talk through your options with your doctor to see what is right for you.
Is DBS Right For You?
It’s important to note that not everyone is a candidate for DBS. Being approved for DBS depends on your diagnosis, prognosis, and previously attempted treatment methods. For instance, patients usually cannot be approved for DBS before trying other traditional forms of treatment first.
There are other pain management methods that your doctor might want to attempt before considering you as a candidate for DBS. These could be:
- Pain medications
- Physical therapy
- Natural remedies for pain
- Using ice or heat
- Reducing inflammation
- Other alternative approaches
However, as many people with chronic pain know, these methods often only go so far. If you feel as though you’ve tried everything to manage your chronic pain without much success, DBS has the potential to open up new possibilities for you.
What Are Your Thoughts on Deep Brain Stimulation?
Let us know in the comments below!
What Treatments for Chronic Pain Should We Cover Next?
Email us your ideas at email@example.com
Join the Pain Resource Community
Did you know Pain Resource has different groups for different conditions? Connect with others who share the same condition as you here.