Nerve Stimulation May Help Birth Defects

Through a recently-approved device and procedure, experts may have found a solution for children who suffer from bowel and bladder birth defects via a technique known as sacral nerve stimulation.

Recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), sacral nerve stimulation is a surgical technique in which an implant is placed in the patient’s body to help control both bladder and bowel functions. Although it was approved primarily for adults, sacral nerve stimulation was introduced to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital as a pilot, to determine if younger patients can benefit as well. 

Director of the Surgical Neuromodulation Program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Dr. Steven Teich, states that mild electric shocks are sent to the patient’s pelvic nerves, which in turn can help the brain communicate with muscle control. 

“The implanted device delivers mild electrical impulses to the pelvic nerves. The pelvic nerves then begin to tell the muscles when to contract, ultimately helping control the ability to urinate or have a bowel movement,” said Dr. Teich.

Patients who undergo sacral nerve stimulation first go through a testing period in which a temporary electronic stimulation device is used. If the temporary device works and the patient shows improvement, the permanent stimulator is used. One of the first young patients to use the new device and technique is 16-year-old Heather Rayser, who was born with a birth defect that has affected her colon so bad that she’s been unable to attend regular school. Her parents are hoping that sacral nerve simulation will provide her with a more typical life and reduce the need for painful medical treatments.

“For the first time that patients like Heather can remember, they don’t have a colostomy and can be just like everyone else,” Dr. Teich said. 

However, it’s important to note that the device doesn’t show automatic results. In fact, according to Dr. Teich, it can take anywhere from six months to a year before it begins to regulate colon and bladder problems. In addition, the battery needs to be replaced every five years.

The patient will feel the device working via an electronic buzzing, but there is no associated pain. Additionally, sacral nerve stimulation is reserved only for qualified candidates: people who suffer from a birth defect known as imperforate anus. All traditional forms of treatment must have been exhausted before anyone becomes candidate for the new device.

So far, however, at least 90% of the children who have had the device implanted have had success. Now, instead of using catheters and other painful treatment methods, these children are given a chance to live a more normal life, something that most parents are worried about for their kids who have endured physical suffering and embarrassment for years.