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Relief! WellSpan offers new outpatient treatment for low back pain

October 28, 2021

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Beth Holz, a York County pastor, tried a variety of treatments for low back pain until she got relief from Peripheral Nerve Stimulation.

Beth Holz, a York County pastor, tried a variety of treatments for low back pain until she got relief from Peripheral Nerve Stimulation.

Beth Holz knows the constant agony of lower back pain. So does Roberta Ortman.

Unfortunately, so do millions of others. Lower back pain is the most common type of pain out there, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In one study, a quarter of adults in the U.S. reported experiencing lower back pain in the prior three months.

Beth, a United Methodist pastor in York County, had pain from two herniated discs. She tried two back surgeries, physical therapy, medication, nerve ablations, and epidural injections – “everything under the sun” – to no avail. Over the summer, she was bracing for a move to a new parsonage in York County and for moving her two children to college campuses. She simply did not know how she was going to be able to get through the experiences without significant pain.

Roberta, an audit coordinator for WellSpan, had pain from arthritis. She tried cortisone shots, nerve blocks, physical therapy, and medication. Nothing took away the pain. An active gardener, cook, and hunter who lives in Lancaster County, Roberta could not sit, drive, sleep or walk without pain. She knew it was bad when she started to drag her one leg.

Then both women received a new treatment offered by WellSpan called Peripheral Nerve Stimulation (PNS). The treatment involves the temporary implant of a very thin wire into the back for 60 days. The wire delivers pulses of electricity that interrupt and reduce pain signals and, after it is removed, usually long-lasting pain relief.

“Oh my goodness, I love, love, love this thing,” Beth said. “I hated to break up with it after the 60 days. I noticed in the first week, oh my back’s not sore! I was able to move. I was able to do anything and not be flat on my back. I kept saying to my husband, ‘Can you imagine if I didn’t have this?’  It totally changed my quality of life.”

Roberta sums up the treatment with one word: “Relief!”

Dr. Rajat Mathur, with WellSpan Interventional Pain Specialists, treated both women with the new minimally invasive treatment. PNS is designed to offer an alternative to opioids, permanent implants, ablation or surgery.

About 75 percent of patients experience significant and sustained relief more than one year after treatment, studies have showed.

There are many different types of back pain out there,” Dr. Mathur said. “Some of that pain is very challenging to treat. Also, we have treatments that don’t last that long and can damage the integrity of the back muscles, causing more pain in the future.

“PNS stimulates the nerves so it helps to actually fix the problem by strengthening the core muscles and reprogramming the nerves to help prevent the pain signals. This is a very promising tool in our toolbox.”

Using ultrasound and X-ray guidance, Mathur implants a hair-like wire, called a lead, into the back, near nerve pathways. A pulse generator then sends mild electrical pulses to the lead. Patients can control the level of stimulation with a hand-held remote while the lead is in place, turning up the power if they need additional pain relief.

PNS has been studied for treatment of lower back pain, shoulder pain, chronic pain, post-stroke shoulder pain, and pain after amputation or surgery, all conditions that can be treated at WellSpan. The treatment is FDA approved and covered by Medicaid and Medicare.

Beth and Roberta were among the first WellSpan patients to receive the intervention, undergoing separate treatments for both sides of their back. The first round of treatment was very promising, both women said, and both are waiting for their second lead to be removed.

“Oh, it has been a game changer for me,” Beth said. “I can go and do. I stopped taking a pain pill three times a day. My husband and I have been able to take some day trips. On Sunday mornings, now my back isn’t sore. I love this thing.”

 Roberta is used to an active life. She played field hockey and basketball when she was younger, worked as a dental assistant for a number of years and enjoys spending time with her two grandchildren.

“I don’t stop,” she said. “I keep going. But the pain was horrible. I told my family physician I can’t take this anymore. It hurts.”

For Roberta, the pain relief came on gradually. She slowed down to give her body a chance to heal and fight the pain. When the first lead was removed, she said, “I had 100 percent impact. It was awesome. I’m very, very pleased with it so far.”

She is amazed that something as small as the hair-like lead could have the results it has.

“It’s modern science and it’s working. It’s a whole lot better than people flipping a pill at you,” she said. “I’m not a big advocate for taking pills. As long as I can move, I am going to be OK. So far, so good.”

For more information about interventional pain management services at WellSpan, go here.