Jan Stora, 75, is a Matthews-based potter who loves spending time in her studio as much as she enjoys being with her tween granddaughters, who are local. Stora (a.k.a. “Grommi”) adores her five grandchildren, three of whom live in Virginia. She came by that moniker when her oldest grandchild tried to pronounce “Grandmommy,” and it came out “Grommi.”

But debilitating back pain made those things – and more – impossible. She’s lived with degenerative disk disease and severe sciatica (back and leg pain) on her right side for decades.

In addition to those conditions, she learned last year she has spinal stenosis. Typically caused by arthritis, stenosis refers to a narrowing of the spine, which puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves of the spine.

Stora had tried nearly everything to alleviate her chronic pain – chiropractic treatment, massages, CBD oil, physical therapy. The steroid shots she’d been getting for nine years had grown increasingly less effective.

Relief from back and neck pain.

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Last December, her pain grew so intense that she could no longer walk her granddaughters to and from the bus stop or lift a 25-pound bag of clay, which she uses for her pottery. Stora, who showcases her work on Instagram as runningrabbit44, sells it at Pottery Road Studio & Gallery in Seagrove, North Carolina – the unofficial pottery capital of America.

Even short walks became excruciating late last year. “With every step, it felt like a knife was jabbing me in the back,” she said.

Dr. James Deering III

Her daughter, Virginia Stora, works as an administrator for a Novant Health ambulatory surgical center and had seen a Healthy Headlines story about an implant that’s highly effective for back pain and is less invasive than neurosurgery. Virginia knows Dr. James Deering III of Novant Health Spine Specialists - Ballantyne and referred her mom to him.

Surgery vs. an implant: Weighing the options

Like many people, Stora wanted to avoid surgery.

Fortunately, she was a good candidate for a spinal cord stimulator, an implanted medical device that relieves pain by sending low levels of electricity into the spinal cord. “The device continuously adjusts itself to provide therapy at the correct neural dose,” Deering explained.

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Stora's spinal cord stimulator remote

These devices include thin wires (called electrodes) and a small impulse generator or battery pack. A doctor implants the electrodes between the spinal cord and the vertebrae, and the generator under the skin near the abdomen or buttocks.

Whenever they feel pain, patients use an external remote control to send electrical impulses to their spinal cord, effectively blocking the pain signal.

There are risks with any procedure, but risks associated with this one are low. They include infection; bleeding; discomfort at the battery site (which may require a revision); device malfunction; and nerve injury up to and including paralysis. Deering has never seen nerve damage in any of his patients, and he “can count on one hand the number of patients who’ve developed an infection.”

Deering has implanted hundreds of devices in patients ranging in age from their early 30s to mid-80s. He’s been implanting the Evoke spinal cord stimulator – the one he recommended for Stora – since it got FDA approval in March 2022.

It’s one of several devices Deering recommends; others include a device made by Boston Scientific. He can choose the device best suited to each patient’s condition. He recommended Evoke for Stora because it delivers the proper therapeutic dose of electricity automatically and adjusts when the patient breathes, coughs or changes positions.

The decision between spinal cord stimulation or more invasive surgery is “nuanced,” Deering said.

“If a patient has spine pathology that’s dangerous to the integrity of their spine, surgical correction is needed,” he said. Severe spinal stenosis leading to difficulty walking – or instability in the spine that can be seen on an X-ray – is among the reasons Deering might recommend that a patient consult with a neurosurgeon.

“If the primary concern is pain versus neurological injury, then these devices … often lead to better outcomes and greater patient satisfaction than more invasive treatments.”

Not everyone is a suitable candidate for an implant – someone with instability in their spinal cord, for instance. Or someone with an underlying psychological condition. Patients are required to undergo a psychological evaluation to be considered for an implant.

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