This spring, Dr. Christopher Winfree, Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, returned to the West Coast to lecture on his former campus, at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).
More than a decade ago, OHSU was where Dr. Winfree did his fellowship in stereotactic and functional neurosurgery.
This year, the OHSU Brain Institute invited Dr. Winfree and other experts (some also alumni) to teach during a three-day hands-on training course about the treatment of chronic pain, titled “Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery.”
Stereotactic neurosurgery uses state-of-the-art computer and imaging technology to locate the precise region of interest in the brain. Functional neurosurgery aims to alter the nervous system in the treatment of conditions such as movement disorders, epilepsy and chronic pain.
Sensing pain is one of the many tasks of our nervous system, and when pain lasts three or more months, it earns the name chronic pain. Pain is often thought of as a warning sign that the body is hurt. But with chronic pain, the pain can persist well after the original injury has resolved.
This can occur anywhere in the body. More than 100 million Americans live with chronic pain, and the medical expenses and loss in productivity and income make this one of the most costly health problems.
The topic of Dr. Winfree’s first lecture was peripheral nerve stimulation, which involves implanting a device near a peripheral nerve. Peripheral nerves branch out of the spinal cord and are responsible for pain signals to the brain.
Sometimes, though, these nerves become damaged and either over or under report pain levels to the brain. When the pain signal is turned up too high, neurosurgeons like Dr. Winfree can surgically implant a device next to the injured nerve that sends electrical impulses that can often override the false reports of pain.
Later in the afternoon, Dr. Winfree was one of the faculty for an interactive lab session about paddle spinal cord stimulation.
Here, a tiny paddle-shaped device is implanted in the space surrounding the spinal cord. The device then delivers electrical impulses to the thick bundle of nerves housed in the spinal cord and overrides messages of pain coming from damaged nerves outside the spine. Pain signals from the limbs and trunk pass through the spinal cord to reach the brain, making it possible to override them at this level.
Surgical procedures such as these are recommended to patients only after nonsurgical treatments, like medication, have been tried.
Though his visit was brief, Dr. Winfree enjoyed the chance to return to a familiar campus and share his expertise with an upcoming generation of neurosurgeons. During a special dinner, the OHSU Brain Institute named Dr. Winfree Honored Faculty.
Learn more about Columbia Neurosurgeons and the Department of Neurosurgery at Columbia here.
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