Lewis entertained doctors, nurses, firefighters and other people at a seminar at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center. Between jokes and video clips, Lewis told of the agony his estimated 1,900 career pratfalls caused him. One physical gag in 1965 – a flip off a piano – landed him spine-first on a steel cable. The accident left him paralyzed overnight and then caused overwhelming pain for the next 37 years, Lewis, now 78, said.
Four failed back surgeries, steroids and narcotic pain pills did nothing to relieve the pain, Lewis said. He became a workaholic to try to take his mind off the agony he felt. But the pain never went away. He was minutes away from shooting himself when his daughter, now 12, caught him holding a handgun, he said.
The entertainer now uses “a pain pacemaker” – an implanted device called a spinal cord stimulator. The device, made by Medtronic Inc. of Minneapolis, consists of a palm-size battery encased in plastic, which is placed under the skin in the abdomen or buttocks. Coated wires run from the stimulator to the spine. Tiny electrodes at the end of the wires lay on top of the spinal cord and produce an electric current. Patients experience the current as a tingling. The tingling blocks pain signals to the brain. Patients control the intensity and duration of the current with a remote control.
For Lewis, the pain relief was instantaneous and complete. But his “Jewish guilt” doesn’t allow him to fully enjoy his pain relief knowing that others are in similar boats, he said.
“We have 75 million people suffering with chronic pain in this country. It is an epidemic,” Lewis said.
For 2 1/2 years, Lewis has toured as Medtronic’s spokesman, touting the benefits of spinal cord stimulation for people with chronic pain.
Lewis intends to start a Chronic Pain Association similar to the Muscular Dystrophy Association he began nearly half a century ago. His telethons have raised nearly $2 billion for muscular dystrophy over the past 48 years, and children with the disease often are referred to as “Jerry’s kids.”
The most common reason for getting a spinal stimulator is chronic pain after back surgery, said Dr. Gregory H. Smith, an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist at Pain Management Services in Des Peres. About 400,000 people in the United States undergo back surgeries each year. Up to 15 percent of them may develop chronic pain, Smith said.
Doctors are not sure how the stimulator blocks pain. Some researchers think the electrical currents may stimulate the body to release endorphins, a natural type of painkiller akin to morphine. Another theory is that it swamps out pain signals to the brain by overwhelming those messages with more pleasurable tingling sensations.
“It’s like having a phone line that’s busy. Now these pain fibers can’t call in the pain message to the spinal cord and the brain,” Smith said.
The device is usually a last resort, said Dr. Robert Swarm, an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist at the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Washington University Pain Center.
Only about two dozen of the 1,500 new patients Swarm sees each year get the stimulators, he said.
Medtronic and several other manufacturers make the devices. The stimulator may cost $15,000 to $35,000, depending on the size of the battery and the number of electrodes. But the device is not necessarily more expensive than pain pills, Swarm said.
Even though the stimulators don’t work for all patients and may only partially relieve pain for others, patients often report functioning better in daily life, pain doctors say.
“It may make the difference between having normal relations with the family and being a recluse moaning in their room all the time,” Swarm said.