Radiofrequency Ablation

Why It Is Done

Radiofrequency ablation is most commonly performed by doctors specializing in the treatment of pain. The goal is to provide longer lasting pain relief for chronic neck or back pain that hasn't been adequately relieved by steroid injections, medications or physical therapy.

Risks

There is a very rare risk of infection or nerve damage as with any nerve treatment. More common side effects include:

  • Mild, temporary discomfort at the site of procedure for anywhere from 2-10 days
  • A temporary, mild sunburn sensation that resolves in a few days
  • Mild dizziness for 1-2 hours that resolves with laying down
How You Prepare

To predict if you're a good candidate for radiofrequency ablation, your doctor may perform a test to determine if the nerves targeted by the procedure are the same nerves responsible for your pain. This diagnostic test involves injecting a small amount of numbing medication into the precise spots where the radiofrequency needles will go. If your pain lessens, radiofrequency treatment at those spots will probably help you.

Prior to the actual radiofrequency ablation procedure, you should:

  • Tell your doctor if you're taking blood thinners or think you may have an active infection
  • Arrange for someone to take you and pick you up from your appointment
  • Eat and drink as usual
  • Take your regular medicines as directed by your doctor

What You Can Expect

During radiofrequency ablation:

Radiofrequency ablation is an outpatient procedure, so you'll go home later that same day. The entire appointment usually takes about 30-45 minutes, but the actual treatment to the nerve tissue lasts only 90 seconds! A special kind of X-ray machine, called a fluoroscope, will help the doctor position the radiofrequency needles precisely so only the targeted nerve tissue will be affected. Numbing medication will be injected into your skin before the radiofrequency needles are inserted.

Results

While radiofrequency ablation may not relieve all your back or neck pain, it usually reduces it by more than 75 percent. Factors that may affect results include:

  • Whether the nerves targeted by the procedure are the same nerves responsible for your pain
  • Presence of other medical or psychiatric illness that might affect your pain
  • While some patients experience lifelong relief, the majority of patients experience relief for six to eighteen months. The procedure will be repeated when the pain returns.

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