Sarah's Journey

Spinal cord stimulation brings ‘life-changing’ relief from chronic pain

After 10 years of constant debilitating pain that forced her to use a cane or crutches to walk, Sarah Graff is now living a normal life. The mother of two small children is active enough to run a home daycare — thanks to a small device implanted in her lower back. 

Sarah’s medical journey began as the result of her passion for skating, a sport that’s hard on the joints and bones. The physical toll was compounded for Sarah by the shinbone in her landing leg being misaligned from birth, a fact that wasn’t discovered until the leg was dislocated one night as she slept. During surgery to align the shin, nerves were cut and Sarah awoke from the procedure in severe pain.

Sarah suffered from chronic pain

Sarah suffered from chronic intractable pain

“I’ve had complex regional pain syndrome ever since,” she says. “I was on pain medications that made me feel like a zombie and spinal blocks every two weeks, off and on for 10 years. It was no way to live.”

Eventually Sarah was referred to the Neuromodulation Program at Hamilton Health Sciences Centre, where she received  a Medtronic spinal cord stimulator system to relieve chronic pain in the back and extremities. 

“Spinal cord stimulation uses electricity as a form of pain control by stimulating the dorsal columns in the spinal cord,” explains Dr. Philip Chan, director of the neuromodulation program. A device like a pacemaker is implanted under the skin and delivers mild electrical impulses through wires inserted in the spine, interrupting pain signals between the spinal cord and brain. 

From the first time I met with her, I knew we had something to offer Sarah to get her back to her life.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Ahmed Al Jishi.

“I was a good candidate,” Sarah says, “because although the pain was complex, it was localized, from the top of the knee to the ankle, so the doctors knew where to implant the stimulator.”

The first step was a trial to see if the system would work for Sarah. “I was awake but groggy, with a local anesthetic,” she recalls. “When they turned on the stimulator, it was incredible. The pain went away immediately.”

“For a short period after the trial I wore a battery pack, but now the battery and wires are implanted. The battery is good for eight years — I recharge it every two weeks. The implant is programmed to adjust impulses depending on what I’m doing, and I can also control it from a remote device.”

Dr. Chan and Dr. Al Jishi

Dr. Philip Chan and Dr. Ahmed Al Jishi

Since most patients will need an MRI at some point, Dr. Chan notes that one advantage of the Medtronic system is that it’s safe within an MRI scanner, as long as the instructions for use are followed.

“This treatment has been absolutely life-changing for me,” says Sarah. “I have to be careful to avoid jarring my back or falling, but I’m able to skate again and I even played a game of charity baseball. Having that relief is amazing.”

“To patients who are living with chronic pain,” says Dr. Al Jishi, “I would say, please be the advocate for yourself and consider spinal cord stimulation.”