By Susan Skog
Jessica Thomas loved teaching first graders, but chronic pain crushed her career and chance for a normal life until she underwent a revolutionary procedure at University of Colorado Health (UCHealth) Pain Management.
Thomas, 31, started having migraines when she was 16. Her headaches spiked after a 2005 car accident. By 2010, she lived an unending neurological nightmare that ended her classroom days.
“In 2010, I started to have more severe migraines and cluster headaches,” she recalled. “Sometimes, I had occipital neuralgia, which caused the back of my head to be so sensitive it even hurt to lie on a pillow. It was totally miserable.
“I also developed trigeminal neuralgia, which felt like electrical shocks going through the side of my head to the front of my face. I had nausea, extreme sensitivity to light and dizziness.”
Docs gave up
Other doctors gave up looking for a permanent solution and were prescribing powerful pain medication, Thomas said. It wasn’t until she met Dr. David Columbus at UCHealth’s Pain Management that she began to imagine her chronic misery might end.
“Dr. Columbus stepped out of the box and looked for ways that could help without just throwing medicines at me,” she said. “He is one of the first doctors who really tried to help me and my husband, who has had to struggle with watching and not being able to help me.”
Using a frontline technology gaining popularity around the country, Dr. Columbus implanted a half-dollar-sized, lightweight spinal cord stimulator in Thomas’ upper buttocks.
The stimulator delivers small electrical pulses to thin leads—coated wires containing electrodes—placed in her spinal cord in precise areas along Thomas’ vertebrae. The pulses block pain by interfering with the nerve impulses that make Thomas experience pain.
Using gentle sedation and with Thomas awake and responding, Dr. Columbus was able to determine precisely where to place several leads in her upper cervical spine, which turned out to best block her body from experiencing pain.
“With this new technology, we are able to place up to 32 different leads along the spinal cord to provide as much pain management coverage as possible,” said Dr. Columbus.
For people with chronic, intractable pain, this once-futuristic treatment is life-changing, he added. “We’ve seen this give back people their lives, relationships and work.”
So far, only 4,000 procedures using the new Boston Scientific technology have been done in the United States, Dr. Columbus said. “We believe we are the only ones in Colorado using this particularly advanced spinal cord stimulator technology.”
In Thomas’ follow-up visits, Dr. Columbus programmed the device to further fine-tune the type and strength of electric stimulation and cover areas of pain where she needed them. Thomas said she noticed improvements in her pain relief as soon as the device was turned on.
“The longer it has been in, the more coverage I am receiving,” she said. “Now it gives me more hope that things really can get better. In the worst of it all, it was really hard to keep hope when going through that much pain.”
Thomas is regaining her life one step at a time. “I started to have less sensitivity to the sun,” she said. “Now, I am able to participate in life more, meaning I can go to the store or go shopping with family members. I can take my dogs on walks. I am still adjusting to having a life again after spending so many years in such horrible pain and not being able to do anything for so long.”
Thomas also said her depression is much better, and her anxiety level has also dropped. “Both changes have been quite a blessing.”
Dr. Columbus said he is thrilled to see Thomas regain her life. “Jessica’s been able to get off most pain medication,” he said. “Her goal now is to return to teaching again.
“I’ve been a pain specialist for 22 years, and this is unbelievable and extremely rewarding,” he noted. “While spinal cord stimulation has been used for more than 30 years in this country, our new ability to narrow down precisely where the pain needs to be controlled is just mind-blowing.”
For more information about Dr. Columbus and pain management, visit pvhs.org or call 970.203.7000.