Chester Jones, 46, of Killeen, served for 24 years in the Army and is often in pain.
As an infantryman for 19 years, including three tours in Iraq and other deployments to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and South Korea, he lugged packs weighing 35 pounds and more, while walking up to 20 miles a day.
The physical stress took its toll in two herniated discs and degenerative disc disease, commonly called a “military back.” The last five years of service, he was medically switched to logistics due to his back problems and retired in 2013.
Pain pills and injections were the only treatment Jones received, taking prescribed opioids several times a day so he could still function. He was never addicted to opioids; however, according to the Veterans Affairs, vets are 10 times more likely than average Americans to abuse opioids, primarily as a coping strategy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Returning military personnel also experience higher rates of chronic pain and related medical use of opioid pain relievers compared to the civilian population.
“I didn’t want to continue taking pills to function, nor did I want to go down a path that might lead to addiction,” Jones said.
Instead in June, he chose an alternative treatment — a spinal cord stimulator, about the size of a matchbook, that was implanted along his spinal column.
Dr. Mark Malone, with Advance Pain Care, said Jones was an excellent candidate for the stimulator, which he called revolutionary.
“We curing chronic pain with the stimulator so you can stop taking opioids,” said Malone, who also has a stimulator in his back.
The stimulator has been available for about 20 years, but the newer models are more effective in treating pain in the body, and especially lower back pain, according to Advance Pain Care.
“Almost any part of the body that experiences pain can be treated with a stimulator, even pain from cancer,” he said. Back surgery can put in steel pins and rods to stabilize the spine, but that doesn’t cure the pain. However, Jones wasn’t a candidate for back surgery, and this type of pain doesn’t respond well to surgery anyway.
The stimulator transmits a waveform that mimics the waveform the nerves use to talk to the brain. One of the new technologies is called the “burst,” a waveform that resembles a burst of signals alternating from flat to a peak. “This is how nerves talk to each other, so by mimicking the signals the nerves send to the brain, the stimulator blocks those pain signals,” added Malone.
But before a patient gets a permanent stimulator, they can try a temporary one for five days. While under sedition, a small needle goes into the epidermal space threading a wire up to the middle of the spine. Then the needle is removed leaving the wire in place. The end of the wire is connected to the stimulator, which is taped to the back, along with a battery. After the test, many patients experience such relief they get a permanent one. A 2-inch incision is made on the back below the belt line where the stimulator is inserted. It is attached to the fascia keeping it in place and only a slight bump appears beneath the skin. A rechargeable battery in the stimulator lasts for about eight years. A remote controls the stimulator turning it on and off and increases and decreases the stimulation. When turned on, it starts working in less than 10 seconds.
Malone estimates in one year about 50 soldiers locally received a stimulator and about 500 patients in the area have one with a 90 percent to 100 percent cure rate.
Jones now feels like he has a whole new back that lets him do the simple things most people take for granted, like mowing the lawn and shopping without using a motorized scooter. “I can enjoy my life again.”