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What Is Radiofrequency Ablation?


Radiofrequency ablation, or RFA, is a minimally invasive procedure that can be used to reduce tissue in the body, such as painful sensory nerves, that is causing pain or other dysfunction. RFA can treat tumors and vascular conditions, and it can also help reduce chronic neck or back pain related to inflamed nerves in the spinal column. The procedure involves injecting a small needle into the affected area that transmits a high frequency radio wave which can heat up and shrink a specific piece of tissue. 

If you’re dealing with pain and other symptoms that are getting in the way of the quality of life you deserve, a great first step toward lasting pain relief is learning about the full range of available treatment options. As you read over the following information on radiofrequency ablation, don’t hesitate to reach out to our caring team to learn more and for answers to any questions you have. 

How radiofrequency ablation treats neck and back pain

Patients commonly undergo RFA for pain relief related to irritation of the medial branch nerves in the spine. This form of pinched nerve can be caused by arthritis in the facet joints, which help link the individual vertebrae and allow the spine to bend and flex. Arthritis in the spine develops when the protective cartilage and joint fluid on the facet joints wear out, causing increased friction and inflammation in the joints. 

In addition to stiffness and aches, inflamed facet joints can irritate, or pinch, surrounding nerve tissue. In particular, this can disrupt the function of medial branch nerves which can cause severe localized neck or back pain depending on their location in the spinal column. An RFA procedure offers relief by shrinking these irritated nerves, which only deliver sensory information to the brain and do not affect other functions. 

Becoming a candidate for radiofrequency ablation 

RFA is usually recommended for patients with neck or back pain that has lasted for weeks or months and has not responded to basic conservative therapies. This procedure can also offer relief for sacroiliac joint pain related to a pinched nerve in the pelvis. Treatment options that patients typically attempt before undergoing RFA include:

  • Rest and activity modification
  • Hot and cold compression therapy
  • Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication
  • Pain-relieving steroid injections
  • Physical therapy

To ensure that an RFA procedure will be effective, the treatment provider will perform a nerve block on the suspected nerve. If the injection of a temporary numbing agent causes relief, providers can be confident that ablating the nerve will be effective. Patients need to be free of infection at the injection site and not have allergies to local anesthetics. 

What to expect during a radiofrequency ablation procedure

Because it is a minimally invasive procedure, RFA is generally performed on an outpatient basis, meaning patients will return home the same day. Since individual procedures vary, always discuss the specifics of your procedure with your doctor or treatment provider. 

Patients typically remain awake during the procedure, but a mild sedative can be administered if needed. From there, an RFA procedure involves the following steps:

  • The patient will lie face down, or prone, on the table in the procedure room
  • After thoroughly cleaning the area, a local anesthetic will be injected into the area
  • X-ray guidance, or  fluoroscopy, will be used to guide the radiofrequency ablation probe precisely to the targeted nerve 
  • One the hollow probe is in place, a very thin electrode is guided through it which generates a small electrical current that only affects the target pinched nerve
  • Next, the target nerve will be heated to ablate it and reduce painful symptoms
  • If the patient has more than one pinched nerve the process can be repeated in additional locations

This is a relatively brief procedure that typically lasts less than an hour and no more than two. The patient is then moved to a recovery room to be monitored and ensure vital signs are normal. Patients who require sedation usually spend a longer period of time in the recovery room. Doctors will instruct RFA patients to have someone drive them home once they are discharged. 

Radiofrequency ablation recovery 

Recovery for an RFA is minimal, usually lasting only a few days to a week. Symptoms typically include mild soreness, swelling and bruising at the injection site and patients are advised to rest as much as possible for the first three days after the procedure. Pain relief should begin after the first week and typically lasts for months or even years. 

It is important to follow all post-procedural instructions for caring for the injection site and returning to normal activities. RFA is seen as a low-risk procedure, but patients should report any abnormal symptoms or problems as soon as they notice them to reduce the likelihood of complications. 

Learn more from USA Spine Care

If you are suffering from chronic pain, it is possible to find lasting relief to help you return to a healthy and active lifestyle. At USA Spine Care, our expert interdisciplinary team can help you build a personalized treatment plan that is targeted for your needs and lifestyle. For many patients, RFA is part of an effective and comprehensive pain relief program. 

Contact us today to learn more. 

Radiofrequency Ablation Quick Answers

Is radiofrequency ablation painful?

Radiofrequency ablation is a minimally invasive procedure that involves a relatively short recovery process. Patients recovering from radiofrequency ablation typically report mild discomfort, bruising and some swelling at the site of the procedure. This will usually go away within a few days. 

How long does radiofrequency ablation last?

Nerves treated by an RFA do have the ability to grow back. This means the duration of relief from a radiofrequency ablation can last anywhere from six months on the low end to 12 months or even years. 

Who is a candidate for radiofrequency ablation?

Radiofrequency ablation is often a midpoint between basic conservative therapies and more involved surgery. Patients typically have chronic symptoms such as facet joint pain that is interfering with everyday activities and quality of life. 

Are you sedated for radiofrequency ablation?

Radiofrequency ablation is a minimally invasive procedure that involves a needle that uses radio waves to ablate, or burn away nervous tissue. Patients will receive a local anesthetic to the region. Although sedation is not required, some patients can choose to receive a mild sedative during the procedure.

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