Implant helps New Mexicans manage pain without opioids

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The unfortunate truth is back pain is common. Some have it worse than others, but that does not necessarily mean they need a neurosurgeon, rods or screws to help them get back on their feet.

That is where Dr. John Watkins, with the New Mexico Pain Center, comes in. He was the first to bring dorsal root ganglion stimulation (DRG) to our state.

“This may be an intermediate step to help postpone surgery, give you some good relief,” he said.

Dr. Watkins implants a small device in the spine that sends electric impulses to block pain signals before they reach the brain.

“Applying electricity to the nervous system to change the way it transmits pain, and also change the way pain is processed in the brain,” he said. “It’s become very powerful. It’s a life changer.”

The procedure, and others like it, also free many patients from long recovery times and having to take medications that often hurt more than they help, like opiates.

“The reason we’re doing this is: One, it is effective. Two, you don’t need to take drugs, and most people get off of their medications after we implant one of these devices,” Dr. Watkins said. “Interventional pain management is very surgical now, and we’re trying to get away from keeping people on medications. I think there’s a lot of people we can help with these minimally invasive techniques to manage their pain without a lot of drugs.”

Dr. Watkins also performs minor surgeries that stabilize the spine.

“So if we get narrowing in the central canal, patients manifest weakness upon standing for any length of time, pain with standing, they can’t walk very far, they’re limited shopping, legs don’t work very well,” he said, while demonstrating on a model spine. “If they sit down and rest, it gets better. So what I do is I put a little spacer in between these two bones that keeps it open.”

The procedure takes up to one hour, and the incision is smaller than the width of a pinky finger. Dr. Watkins added that most patients recover within three days.

“These patients wake up or come out of surgery and they stand up and for the first time that tell me I can feel my legs, I have no pain,” he said. “I could honestly say I feel good about being able to change people’s lives for the better”

The New Mexico Pain Center just opened a new location in Santa Fe, with locations already established in Albuquerque and throughout southern New Mexico.

Click here for more information on available clinics and chronic pain treatments.