Radiofrequency ablation refers to destroying tiny nerves in the back of the spine to reduce back and neck pain. Facet joints form the back part of the spine and these joints can become inflamed from various conditions including arthritis and trauma.
When inflamed, these joints can cause significant back pain. Usually, a test is done by locally anesthetizing (numbing) these tiny nerves. If the patient reports significant improvement of the pain from this test (the relief usually lasts 3 to 4 hours) then the RFA procedure can be done.
In medical terms the definition of ablation is the removal or destruction of a body part or tissue or it’s function. This might sound scary, but it can help with neck pain, back pain, and is less invasive than other procedures.
Radiofrequency ablation, also known as rhizotomy, is a non-surgical and minimally invasive treatment that uses radiofrequency waves to ablate nerve endings that are causing you pain. The heat from these waves will stop the nerves from transmitting pain signals to the brain and is good for treating chronic pain conditions such as arthritis of the spine, and neck and back nerve pain.
Nerve ablation to help with cervical pain
Radiofrequency neurotomy that treats neck pain can be very effective. The goal here is to reduce chronic neck pain that isn’t improving using other methods such as medication or physical therapy.
The neck is a common place for chronic pain, and is a delicate area to operate on, so a non-invasive procedure such as RFA is a good option.
Rhizotomy Surgery Procedure
The rhizotomy, or RFA, surgery uses thin needles inserted into the skin to target your nerve endings. You’ll likely be on your stomach, and if you opt for sedation then a relaxation medicine can be given before the operation is performed.
The skin of the targeted treatment area is cleaned and sanitized to protect from infection, and a local anesthetic is injected to help numb the area for the procedure.
The procedure involves placing a needle close to the suspected facet joint causing nerve pain and using heat (radiofrequency energy) to destroy these tiny nerves.
An X-ray is used to guide the RFA needle to the medial or lateral branch nerve that’s irritating you. After the doctor has placed the needle at the appropriate spot, an electrode is inserted through the needle and a small amount of electricity is passed through to target that specific nerve. Overall it should take between 30 and 90 minutes.
Is radiofrequency ablation painful?
The electrical current used in ablation can shortly recreate the painful symptoms it’s treating, because of the heat generated when going through RFA. A heat lesion is created on the target nerve using conventional, pulsed, or water cool radiofrequency ablation. If necessary, it can be repeated for more nerves that are bothering you.
What are the side effects of radiofrequency ablation?
RFA Is a relatively safe procedure with minimal risks. You may experience residual nerve pain, though most people get immediate pain relief. Because the procedure is simply a needle insertion the complications are rare. Infrequently, bleeding, infection, discomfort at the point of injection, and motor nerve damage may follow a RFA procedure.
What to expect after radiofrequency ablation?
You should arrange for someone to drive you home. RFA is an outpatient procedure so you’ll be heading home the same day of the surgery.
Immediately after the procedure you’ll rest in the outpatient area until you feel good enough to go home. You may be slightly sore where the needles were placed, but this will go away in a day or two.
You’ll want to use an ice pack on the injection sites for about 20 minutes a few times a day if you experience discomfort, but don’t use heating pads. You should also avoid baths for a couple of days, but a warm shower is fine 24 hours after the ablation.
What if Radiofrequency Ablation Doesn’t Work?
RFA success rate is high, and has been shown to help up to 70% – 80% of people address neck pain, spine, and lower back pain. However, you may experience residual pain from the ablation for up to 14 days, so your doctor may recommend waiting a few weeks before examining the success of the surgery. For some people pain relief is immediate, and for some, it can take up to 3 weeks. You should have a follow-up appointment to see how the treatment is working.
The relief can last between 9 months and more than 2 years. The painful nerve may regrow through the lesion created with ablation. If it does regrow, this happens 6-12 months after the procedure, but the RFA can be repeated as needed.
You can explore other options depending on the cause of your nerve pain if you feel RFA isn’t working for you, such as discectomy, laminectomy or laser surgery.
Nerve doctors near you
An experienced neurosurgeon with decades of surgical experience will perform RFA so you know you’ll be in trusted hands. Laser Spine Center has helped hundreds of people live pain-free lives, and get back to feeling normal again.
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