Radiofrequency ablation uses radio waves to create heat that is used to kill tissue. When the procedure is done on nerve tissue, it can provide relief from pain that hasn’t been helped by other approaches. It has been used very successfully to treat people who have heart rhythm problems. More recently, it has been used to destroy tumors and treat pain.
Radiofrequency waves are electromagnetic waves that travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second).
Radiofrequency ablation gives longer term pain relieve than nerve blocks or other types of injections. Many types of chronic pain respond well to radiofrequency ablation including pain from:
- Injuries such as whiplash
- Neuropathic pain conditions like complex regional pain syndrome or peripheral nerve entrapment syndromes
- Prior spine surgeries
- Spinal arthritis (spondylosis)
What Happens During Radiofrequency Ablation
An intravenous (IV) line will be started before the procedure begins. It will be used to give the patient drugs to make the procedure more comfortable and to calm fears. The area will be carefully cleaned and numbed before the IV line is inserted.
During the procedure, the patient needs to be alert to help the doctor to correctly place the electrode used during the ablation procedure.
The doctor will use X-rays to guide twin, insulated needles to the proper place next to the nerve. A tiny electrode is placed inside the needle. A small radiofrequency current is directed to the medial branch nerve of the joint capsule for 60 to 90 seconds. The radiofrequency waves make heat. This destroys the nerve tissue that is sending the pain signals to the brain.
The procedure is done with sterile technique to minimize the risk of infection.
After the procedure, you will be taken to a recovery area. The nurses will monitor you and be sure you do not have an allergic reaction. You will be allowed to leave once you are stable.
You should rest for about 24 hours. During that time you should not drive a car.
You may feel more pain for several days after the procedure. Your doctor may give you additional pain relieving medications until this goes away. There may be some swelling or bruising where the needle was inserted. A cold pack will help reduce the swelling.
Pain Relief From Radiofrequency Ablation
How much pain is relieved after the procedure varies from person to person. It can take three or more weeks for the full effects of radiofrequency ablation to be felt. The pain relief may last six months to a year or even longer. Sometimes, nerves do grow back. In such cases, the radiofrequency ablation may need to be repeated.
After the procedure, it becomes easier to be more active. Having pain makes it hard to be active. A person who has had a great deal of pain may have weaker muscles. It is important to build up strength and fitness gradually.