I need a spinal stimulator for pain control. Would it be cheaper to go to Canada and get it? I’ve heard the cost of health care there is much less than in the U.S.

Spinal cord stimulation (SCS), also called neurostimulation are used to help relieve chronic neuropathic (nerve) pain. A stimulator is implanted into the patient’s body, which then sends out impulses to interrupt the pain signals and prevent them from reaching the brain.

The electrical impulses from the stimulator override or mask the pain messages so the person doesn’t feel the pain so acutely or so intensely. SCS is generally only used if nothing else in treatment has been successful in reducing or eliminating intense, chronic pain.

It must be done on a trial basis first before the stimulator is permanently implanted. There is a cost involved in the trial as well as the permanent implantation if the trial goes well. The trial stimulation involves consultation with a psychiatrist, social worker, neurosurgeon, neurologist, orthopedic surgeon, neuromodulation nurse, and the family or primary care physician who coordinates it all.

ST scans, X-rays, and MRIs are taken in preparation of the implantation. In addition to those costs, the cost of surgery includes the anesthesia, neurosurgical team fees, and the device itself. The stimulator has electrodes and batteries that must be maintained, repaired, and/or replaced each year. Follow-up visits, follow-up imaging, and care for any complications (broken wires, infections, failed pain control) must be added to the overall total costs.

So, it is a good idea to consider the total annual costs — not just for the implantation, but for the life of the unit and the long-term use needed for pain control. Whether or not it’s cheaper to have it done in Canada is another factor to consider. It may depend on whether or not you have any medical coverage to help you out.

If you are covered under a third party payer, will they cover expenses incurred in another country? Will they help you with travel costs to get to and from Canada? Who will do the follow-up care? If you go to Canada for that, then you must calculate the additional costs to and from Canada as well as the cost of food and lodging while there.

There’s no reason not to investigate this fully. But beware of the hidden costs and need for close follow-up for many years to come. What might look like a cost advantage in another country may end up a liability when you look at the big picture.