After enduring lower back pain for more than 25 years, Donald Bartelt was running out of options. Physical therapy, steroid injections and stronger medications helped, but the pain always returned.

“I would get pain down my right leg, and it would go numb,” said Donald, a 75-year-old resident of Hartford and retired semitruck driver. “It got progressively worse, and I never had a day without pain.”

Once able to walk three miles a day, he struggled to reach a mile.

Spinal Cord Stimulation to Block Pain Signals

“Donald was experiencing what is generally called sciatica, a level of degenerative disease in the spinal canal,” said Gwynne Kirchen, MD, an anesthesiologist specializing in pain management and a Medical College of Wisconsin faculty member. “We reviewed everything he had tried and discussed spinal cord stimulation — an approach that interested him. It is a form of neuromodulation, where we place thin electrodes in the spine to deliver low-voltage electrical pulses that block pain signals.”

Spinal cord stimulation does not eliminate the source of pain, it interferes with the signal to the brain.

Narrowing of the spine like Donald’s is common in people in their 60s and 70s. Yet few know about spinal cord stimulation to treat it.

Implanted Pain Pacemaker Reduces Back Pain

“At the Froedtert & MCW health network, we are one of the region’s most experienced centers for spinal cord stimulation,” said Peter Pahapill, MD, PhD, neurosurgeon and MCW faculty member.

Because stimulation will reduce but not eliminate pain, patients consult with a psychologist beforehand to make sure they are fully informed of its capabilities and limitations.

“Don went into it with his eyes open and with reasonable expectations,” said Sarah Trost, PhD, clinical psychologist and MCW faculty member in anesthesiology.

The procedure took place in two stages. Dr. Kirchen performed a temporary trial to test effectiveness, which was a success, and then Dr. Pahapill placed the permanent device in April 2022.

“The pain pacemaker, with its small battery, is like a heart pacemaker,” Dr. Pahapill said. “It is implanted underneath the skin. Patients get a Bluetooth-enabled remote to make adjustments.”

Donald said the device has changed his life. “Now I can walk as far as I want,” he said. “My quality of life is much better. To have that pain gone and not have to take strong medications is a miracle for me.”

For more information, visit