What Is a Drug Pump?

Drug pumps (intrathecal drug delivery systems) deliver pain medication to the fluid-filled area surrounding the spinal cord (called the intrathecal space). Because pain medication goes directly to the pain receptors near the spine (instead of going through your circulatory system), a drug pump offers significant pain control using a small fraction of the dose that oral medication requires.1-5

About the Drug Delivery System 

The system consists of a pump and catheter, both of which are surgically placed under the skin. The pump is a round device that stores and delivers pain medication. It is typically placed in your abdomen. The catheter (a thin, flexible tube) is inserted into your spine and connected to the pump. 

During the surgery, your doctor fills the pump with pain medication using a needle. The pump sends the medication through the catheter to the spinal area where pain receptors are located. You return to your doctor’s office for more medicine when the pump needs to be filled. 

How It Works 

The spinal cord is like a highway for pain signals that are heading to the brain. When the pump sends pain medication directly to the receptors near the spine, it interrupts the pain signals before they reach the brain. 

Types of Drug Delivery Systems 

There are a variety of drug pump systems tailored for different symptoms, including: 

  • Programmable systems – Doses can be scheduled and changed using an external programming device 
  • Non-programmable systems – Dispense medication at a constant flow rate 
  • Physician programmer – A computer at your doctor’s office that lets your doctor adjust drug pump system parameters (programmable pumps only)
  • Patient programmer – A hand-held device that allows you to deliver the dosage of medication that your doctor prescribes (for programmable pumps only)

If a drug pump is an option for you, your doctor will work with you to select the pain treatment system that is most appropriate for your needs. 


  1. Onofrio BM, Yaksh TL. Long-Term Pain Relief Produced by Intrathecal Infusion in 53 Patients. J Neurosurg 1990; 72: 200-209. 
  2. Winkelmuller M, Winkelmuller W. Long-Term Effects of Continuous Intrathecal Opioid Treatment in Chronic Pain of Nonmalignant Etiology. J Neurosurg 1996; 85: 458-467. 
  3. Paice JA, Penn RD, Shott S. Intraspinal Morphine for Chronic Pain: A Retrospective, Multicenter Study. J Pain Symptom Manage 1996; 11(2): 71-80. 
  4. Lamer TJ. Treatment of Cancer-Related Pain: When Orally Administered Medications Fail. Mayo Clin Proc 1994; 69:473-480. 
  5. Portenoy RK. Management of Common Opioid Side Effects During Long-Term Therapy of Cancer Pain. Ann Acad Med 1994; 23:160-170.

Information on this site should not be used as a substitute for talking with your doctor. Always talk with your doctor about diagnosis and treatment information.

Last updated: 19 Apr 2016

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