Chronic pain is one of the main causes of disability worldwide. Many pain conditions are complex, hard to treat, and lead to years of suffering. There are many treatment options to explore, though. For example, radiofrequency ablation can help manage a wide variety of some of the hardest to treat pain conditions. Here’s what you need to know about radiofrequency ablation uses for chronic pain.
Want to learn more after reading this post? Our Raleigh pain management team at Wake Spine & Pain is here to answer your questions.
What is radiofrequency ablation used for?
Radiofrequency ablation (also referred to as radiofrequency neurotomy or RFA) uses heat generated by radio waves to stop your nerves from sending pain signals. This procedure is often a more permanent option after a nerve block relieves pain.
Because of how it works, radiofrequency ablation uses can help doctors target pain that has been unresponsive to more traditional treatments. Radiofrequency ablation benefits include:
- Quick recovery time
- Ability to avoid more invasive surgery
- Minimal (if any) side effects
- Long-lasting pain relief
Here are three conditions that benefit from radiofrequency ablation.
1. Back pain
Back pain is the leading cause of disability and missed work for people between the ages of 18 and 64. The hardest working years of your life can be seriously compromised by this chronic pain condition. For lower back pain in particular, radiofrequency ablation benefits include not only pain relief but also an improved quality of life.
Consider the following studies:
- A study published in 2020 found that a significant majority of patients with lower back pain in the facet joints had greater than 50% pain reduction up to 24 months after radiofrequency ablation
- A review of studies from 2009 to 2014 found that radiofrequency ablation offered consistent short-term relief for back pain that originates between the lower back and the sacrum
- Using radiofrequency ablation for chronic lower back and sacroiliac pain improves quality of life and decreases disability
2. Neck pain
Neck pain has a variety of causes, many of which can be treated with cervical radiofrequency ablation. The delicate structures of the cervical spine are susceptible to injury and wear over time. You may experience some of the same issues with your neck as you do with your lower back, including facet joint syndrome and arthritis.
Radiofrequency ablation for pain in the neck might target the medial branch nerves or the sphenopalatine ganglion: a group of nerves responsible for pain in the face and head. This makes radiofrequency ablation a good option for some kinds of chronic headaches as well.
Whatever the cause, radiofrequency ablation uses for neck pain have support in the research, including:
- A small study in 2020 found 70% of patients experiencing improved or very much improved pain over 12 months
- Radiofrequency ablation has been found safe and effective even for patients who have pre-existing hardware in their cervical spine
3. Arthritis and joint pain
Arthritis and the joint pain it can lead to makes everyday life challenging. Radiofrequency ablation for pain in the joints is safe, effective, and can improve daily function. Here’s what we know.
- A study of 177 patients with knee pain found that radiofrequency ablation improved function, ease of movement, and pain levels
- Radiofrequency ablation that targets the genicular nerve is associated with decreased use of opioid pain medications
- Hip and shoulder pain is significantly relieved and function improved in just one RFA treatment
What to expect with the radiofrequency ablation procedure
If radiofrequency ablation uses could help you manage your chronic pain, you’ll first start with a consultation with your doctor. If you have a pacemaker or are pregnant, radiofrequency ablation may not be for you.
There are several different types of radiofrequency ablation. Radiofrequency thermo-coagulation uses heat between 50-90°C to destroy pain-signaling nerve endings. Pulsed-RFA uses a lower temperature to stun the nerve instead of destroying it completely. Although pulsed RFA may cause less discomfort during the procedure, it may not last as long as is often not covered by insurance.
The procedure itself
The radiofrequency ablation procedure is an outpatient one and no hospital stay is necessary. At Wake Spine & Pain, we perform these procedures in our convenient outpatient clinic.
When you arrive for your appointment, you’ll change into a gown and position yourself comfortably on the exam table. Your doctor will clean, sterilize, and numb the area. You will remain awake during the procedure so that you can give your doctor feedback as needed.
Using fluoroscopic (X-ray) guidance, your doctor inserts a hollow needle into the target area. This ensures correct placement of the needle. To double check that placement, your doctor may inject a contrast dye to the area, too.
When placement is verified, your doctor inserts a microelectrode through the hollow needle. A mild radiofrequency current goes through the electrode, enough to form a lesion on the nerve that is sending pain signals. This lesion prevents the nerve from sending pain signals to the brain.
The hollow needle is withdrawn, and a sterile bandage is placed over the site of the procedure.
After the radiofrequency ablation procedure, you’ll usually head home the same day. Rest and take it easy that day. You can resume normal activities within a day or two, as advised by your doctor.
You may notice some minor pain or discomfort at the injection site. This is normal and should resolve within 48 hours.
Learn more about radiofrequency ablation
At Wake Spine & Pain, we’re committed to delivering timely care so we can diagnose the cause of your pain and work to develop a treatment plan that works. Most patients have an appointment within 48 hours, and we also offer telemedicine consultations.
Radiofrequency ablation is just one of our many pain treatment options. It’s time to relieve your pain and reclaim your life. Contact Wake Spine & Pain today to schedule your appointment.