Renewed clarity of mind has been a welcome surprise for Kevin Collins since having pioneering surgery for the management of chronic pain in a Dublin hospital.
Other, more expected benefits, include a significant lift in pain and aches around his body and in the fatigue he was experiencing, 15 years on from being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2008.
“I find myself now daydreaming, thinking about things a lot more – more engaged with what I’m doing,” says the 54-year-old. It is only since becoming the first patient in Europe to have a new, advanced version of a spinal cord stimulator implanted after it was licensed for commercial use in the EU, that he realises the “dampening effect” the chronic pain was having on his brain in trying to cope with it.
A spinal cord stimulator (SCS) delivers mild electrical impulses to the spine, with the aim of disrupting pain signals before they reach the brain. This new Inceptiv device, developed by Medtronic, uses closed loop technology to monitor body movements 50 times a second and constantly adjust stimulation to optimum levels.
Collins, who lives in Glenageary, Co Dublin, with his wife Janet and their 13-year-old daughter Caoimhe, has a MS lesion in his neck. He is a keen sea swimmer and believes this new technology, currently only licensed in Japan and the EU, particularly suits him.
I was heading towards a dead end in terms of medication and I was using stuff that you don’t want to be on for long
“My head moves a lot in my swimming.” He swims about three times a week at the Forty Foot in Sandycove, all year round. If he hadn’t had the benefit of this newest type of SCS, he reckons he would probably have had ups and downs of pain and tingling rather than the constant relief this offers. “We’re talking about 50-60 per cent [pain reduction],” he explains. “There’s still discomfort and there’s still MS” – but it has made life significantly easier for him.
Before the surgery, the pain he was living with “was starting to bite into me as a person and family life, and my being present in situations”. His increased dependency on painkilling drugs was one of the main reasons he went for this option. “I was heading towards a dead end in terms of medication and I was using stuff that you don’t want to be on for long.”
The swimming, along with the medications and support of family and friends, are what kept him sane. He had to give up his very physical job in forestry, which involved visits to the Wicklow mountains three or four times a week.
“I just had to chuck it in, which was a real heartbreak because you are spending your time in a landscape that tourists come to visit. It was amazing.” But he was able to transfer to a desk job, still within the forestry section of the Department of Agriculture.
He has been able to continue swimming. “You might limp down to the edge of the water but [within] the first couple of seconds the body just kicks into action.” He has swum 3k races “and I would have difficulty walking 3k”. It is a “natural high and my body was getting good exercise”, says Collins, who enjoys the camaraderie of the “very inclusive” Forty Foot community.
“The cold water was always kind of a refuge – where my body felt ‘normal’, like it did before. The head gets cleared out too – it was really important and still is.”
Dr. Paul Murphy can be contacted here:
ADDRESS:Suite 1, 1st Floor
St. Vincent’s Private Hospital