Researchers at Sydney’s Royal North Shore hospital are moving closer to interrupting chronic back pain with an exciting new innovation, which is currently in trial stages.

The trial centres on the Saluda spinal implant, otherwise known as a spinal cord stimulator, that sits at the base of the spine, and slightly to the right. Its job is to monitor the electrical impulses travelling across the spinal cord and disrupt the pain signals. As we speak a medical trial is going on and early results have been overwhelmingly positive.

If you’ve had chronic pain for a long time and investigated treatments on the internet you may have heard about spinal implants before. They have been around for at least 30 years but if this trial is successful, for the first time in history there will be widespread use of spinal cord implants. Right now, spinal implants cost around $30,000, a prohibitive expense for most people. However, there is investment from the NSW government who hope to turn this invention into an affordable piece of innovation. If all goes to plan, the Saluda implant will be a product which takes its place in Australian medical history alongside the cochlear implant and the cure for stomach ulcers.  

This particular implant is different to early models because it has the unique ability to monitor the strength of the electrical signals travelling along the spinal cord to the brain and accordingly adjust what it puts out. For the patient, this means they experience an equilibrium of pain relief. Earlier versions put out electrical impulses that were either too strong or too weak. These lacked the ability to interpret what the body needed. They produced ineffective results that possibly were not worth the hefty price tag.

Five patients have trialled the new device and have spoken highly about it to Channel Nine News. They were excited about the spinal cord stimulator device because it dramatically reduced their pain scale scores (which are rated between 1 – 10) and increased their satisfaction in daily life. The trial has reached the stage where it needs to be expanded to more accurately determine the Saluda implant’s reliability and potential side effects. About 39 people are enrolled in the expanded trial program and they are looking to replicate it in the USA as well.

If the Saluda spinal cord stimulator is successful it is set to revolutionise back pain treatment. This is an important invention because back pain is one of the biggest, costliest and growing health problems affecting the Western world. At the moment opiates and prescription drugs are often relied upon ease pain which as we know, can interfere with daily life causing drowsiness or even addiction issues. One U.S. website states that in 17 states, more people die from painkiller overdoses than from car accidents. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that “chronic pain affects one in five Australians and costs $34.5 billion per year. The number of prescriptions for the painkiller oxycodone has surged five-fold over the past 10 years”.

Professor Michael Cousins, the director of the Pain Management Research Institute at the Royal North Shore Hospital and University of Sydney believes the Saluda implant could very well be the alternative, effective treatment that means people with chronic back pain will no longer need to turn to medications. “At the moment we calculated the cost of the neurostimulation system is recouped in about two-and-a-half years but that’s with existing systems.”We anticipate that this new system may be a lot more effective over a long term.” Chronic back pain sufferers, there is hope on the horizon.

For further reading visit Sydney Morning Herald