‘Spinal pacemaker’ helps some with chronic pain

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DENVER -- For children and adults living with chronic pain, life can seem hopeless.

That’s how Greenwood Village teenager Ashlee Lipinski felt after a knee injury and subsequent surgery left her with searing pain across her body.

“It was something you couldn’t get away from,” said Ashlee. “It was disheartening.”

Ashlee dislocated her knee while doing a simple household chore -- emptying the dishwasher. She had surgery, but the burning pain intensified and spread.

She was diagnosed with a mysterious illness called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, or RSD. It causes the nervous system to misfire impulses, resulting in shooting pain.

“We couldn’t go to the mall, walk the dogs,” Said Ashlee’s mother, Kim Lipinski. “We couldn’t do anything because it made her sore.”

For this athletic, outgoing teenager, life virtually stopped. Then, Ashlee’s mom had an idea. What if a procedure that had helped her own neck pain, might help her daughter, too?

“I had hope that she could be normal again…have a normal life as a kid and teenager; every mom’s dream,” Kim said.

So Ashlee made an appointment with her mom’s doctor neurosurgeon Giancarlo Barolat.

“This girl was in agony. She was a good student, very athletic, and she had to give up on everything," Barolat said. "Her life was nothing.”

For 30 years, Barolat has focused on fighting pain with a pacemaker. Not the kind we associate with the heart – but for the nerves.

The pacemaker is half machine, half battery; a metal device that fits in the palm of your hand.

In a relatively non-invasive procedure, Barolat implants a neurostimulator on the spine, nerves, or under the skin – at the source of the pain.  He can then direct the current, and even wake the patient during surgery to find the right spot.

The procedure is reversible, the pacemaker can be adjusted, and more devices may be added.

“This is not the doctor doing something to the patient. This is the doctor and the patient working together,” said Barolat.

One of his main goals is to provide an alternative to pain medication or major surgery.

“We’re basically trying to eliminate the bad signals and let the good signals go through,” Barolat said.

He figures, about 75 percent of his patients, like Ashlee, get 50 to 75 percent pain relief.

Barolat says the neurostimulator can also help people with chronic headaches and back pain; patients who have not responded to conventional treatments.

Insurance often covers at least a portion of the surgery. Still, he’s clear, it does not work for everyone.

It did work for Ashlee, who just started college. She plans to study medicine, so she can help others in pain.

In the meantime, she has some advice:  “Don’t give up. You will find something that will change your life, that will make it better.”

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