Mechanisms and mode of action of spinal cord stimulation in chronic neuropathic pain

Lonne Heijmans*, Elbert A. Joosten

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal(Systematic) Review article peer-review


Tonic spinal cord stimulation (SCS) has been used as a treatment for chronic neuropathic pain ever since its discovery in late 1960s. Despite its clinical successes in a subset of chronic neuropathic pain syndromes, several limitations such as insufficient pain relief and uncomfortable paresthesias have led to the development of new targets, the dorsal root ganglion, and new stimulation waveforms, such as burst and high frequency. The aim of this review is to provide a brief overview of the main mechanisms behind the mode of action of the different SCS paradigms. Tonic SCS mainly acts via a segmental spinal mechanism where it induces GABA-release from inhibitory interneurons in the spinal dorsal horn. Tonic SCS concurrently initiates neuropathic pain modulation through a supraspinal-spinal feedback loop and serotonergic descending fibers. Mechanisms of stimulation of the DRG as well as those related to new SCS paradigms are now under investigation, where it seems that burst SCS not only stimulates sensory, discriminative aspects of pain (like Tonic SCS) but also emotional, affective, and motivational aspects of pain. Initial long-term study results on closed-loop SCS systems hold promise for improvement of future SCS treatment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17-21
Number of pages5
JournalPostgraduate Medicine
Early online date23 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 16 Nov 2020


  • Spinal cord stimulation
  • pain modulation
  • tonic
  • burst
  • high-frequency
  • mechanism of action
  • dorsal horn
  • nociception
  • serotonin
  • GABA
  • BACK
  • HORN


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