Radiofrequency ablation (RFA), also known as radiofrequency neurotomy, is a procedure used by pain management specialists to reduce pain caused by overactive nerves.
The procedure uses targeted radio waves to heat and disable nerve endings. Using specialized X-rays, the pain management specialist places microelectrodes near the misfiring nerves. Once the electrodes are in place, the pain doctor transmits radio waves through them to heat the areas and interrupt the nerve’s ability to send pain signals to the brain.
Pain management specialists perform radiofrequency ablation in the office or outpatient setting.
Seventy percent of patients report pain relief with radiofrequency ablation.
If you experience chronic pain in one or both sides of your back or neck, hip or knee that does not respond to specialized physical therapy, medication, or other pain management procedures, radiofrequency ablation may be a treatment option for you.
Your doctor also may recommend the procedure if you have constant referred pain that spreads from the lower back, through the buttocks, and into your thighs.
Radiofrequency neurotomy can treat pain related to sudden impact injuries such as whiplash, spinal conditions, or overuse injuries.
If you agree RFA is right for you, your Bone & Joint pain management specialist will perform the procedure in a treatment room. During the process, you will need to respond to your provider’s instructions or questions.
Before the procedure, your pain management specialist will give you a muscle relaxant to make you as comfortable as possible. Your medical provider will also use a local anesthetic to numb your skin.
Working with a radiologist, your pain management specialist will use a specialized X-ray called a fluoroscope to place the microelectrodes near the offending nerves.
The doctor will position the needles near the nerve, using your vertebrae as a guide. At times, your doctor may transmit a slight electrical current through the electrode to confirm position. When this occurs, your medical provider may ask what sensations you are feeling. Be honest and descriptive in your answers.
Your orthopedic pain management specialist may reposition the microelectrodes several times to ensure proper placement before turning on the heat and deadening the nerve endings.
Is radiofrequency ablation painful?
Any time we talk about inserting anything into a painful area, it sounds… well; it sounds terrible.
In reality, patients say there is a pinching feeling or the same discomfort you feel when you hit your “funny bone.” Often, providers will tell you when you’ll feel these sensations.
Tell your provider about anything you feel during the procedure. He or she needs to know if you feel pain, numbness, or tingling. Your descriptions will help your provider make any necessary adjustments.
After a radiofrequency ablation, you may feel deep discomfort along with some numbness or burning sensations as you heal. Even though radiofrequency ablation is not considered surgery, it is a minimally invasive procedure that disrupts your nerves, muscles, and soft tissues.
The area may be tender for a few weeks.
What are the side effects of radiofrequency ablation?
Radiofrequency ablation is a low-risk procedure. There’s always a chance your nerves won’t respond. But, serious complications such as site infection or bleeding are rare.
Temporary side effects may include muscle tenderness near the insertion site. Sometimes, patients may experience numbness and a tingling sensation in their legs.
Contact your pain management specialist if you are concerned about your symptoms.
How long does the radiofrequency ablation take?
The time the actual procedure takes depends on your symptoms and the location of your pain. For some, RFA takes about 20 minutes; for others, it can take hours. Before you arrive for treatment, your provider will give you an approximate timeline.
After the procedure, people report feeling pain relief within 2 to 4 weeks as their bodies heal.
Do the nerves regenerate?
Your nerve endings can grow back, but they don’t always.
Radiofrequency ablation typically provides pain relief for 6 to 12 months. Some people enjoy freedom from pain for years.
Will radiofrequency ablation help me?
You may be a candidate for radiofrequency ablation if you suffer from chronic pain in your neck, low back, or buttock and thighs.