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Hitting the Brakes on Pain: Implant Delivers Results Without Opioids

Wednesday, April 24, 2019 12:15 PM

An avid cyclist and skier, Jim Hanig of Highland Park was determined to push through the pain that was cutting into his active life. Over the past few years, however, the 76-year-old found himself losing the battle against constant, debilitating discomfort from arthritis, including spinal stenosis—a narrowing of the spaces between his vertebrae, putting pressure on nerves along his lower back.

Just as Hanig was about to give up, he was referred to the NorthShore Anesthesia Pain Clinic. With a team of board-certified pain physicians, including Anesthesiologist David Dickerson, MD, the clinic offers several innovative neurostimulation therapies.

Breaking the Pain Cycle
At his first appointment, Hanig was struck by Dr. Dickerson’s commitment to offer relief without the use of opioids, which had already proved to be ineffective in treating his chronic pain. “Dr. Dickerson gave me an element of optimism,” Hanig recalled.

That hopefulness is linked to new advancements for patients battling immobilizing pain, including an advanced technique called dorsal root ganglion (DRG) nerve stimulation, which selectively targets inflamed or damaged nerves.

“The DRG is a critical area of pain processing for the nerves. It acts much like a server on a computer network—filtering out and controlling certain signals,” explained Dr. Dickerson, one of a select number of pain physicians providing this treatment nationally. “By stimulating the DRG, we can deliver treatment directly into the center of pain in people’s bodies.”

Back in the Saddle Quickly
DRG stimulator placement is typically a one-hour outpatient procedure. Dr. Dickerson implants a small set of electrodes that precisely targets the source of pain. For Hanig, the implant was placed along the exiting nerve roots in his lower back. Once in place, Hanig uses a wireless controller to regulate the amount of stimulation to the DRG, effectively blocking pain signals before they reach his brain.

“It’s all about improving quality of life,” added Dr. Dickerson. “Typically, chronic pain has a snowballing effect. DRG stimulation works in a similar, but opposite way. Once we start to control pain, we see growing positive momentum in patient function and recovery.”

DRG stimulation is a drug-free way to treat and manage pain. Innovative treatments such as these are part of NorthShore’s continuing efforts to counter the nationwide epidemic of opioid addiction and abuse. 

Retired and spending winter months in Florida, Hanig is back on his bike and is even considering taking up golf. “The pain is diminished, and I’m able to lead a more normal life,” he said. “I can see and feel real progress compared to the past couple of years.”