What Is Radiofrequency Ablation?
Endoscopic Spine Surgeon Dr. Kaixuan Liu with Atlantic Spine Center shares back conditions that can be treated by Radiofrequency Ablation.
When back pain just won't quit, it makes sense to consider a minimally invasive technique known as radiofrequency ablation that zaps painful nerves along the spine to bring relief, according to Endoscopic Spine Surgeon Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center.
Many back pain sufferers don't know the top spinal conditions that can be treated by radiofrequency ablation, he says, which is increasingly popular in recent years as patients become more educated about the many therapies that can help them get back to their everyday activities with less discomfort. Useful on both the neck and lower back, radiofrequency ablation uses heat to disrupt specific nerves transmitting pain signals to the brain, he explains. The minimally invasive, quick procedure can be done in a doctor's office and boasts both a high success rate and a rapid recovery.
"It's important for those beleaguered by chronic back pain to understand the many benefits of this highly effective technique," explains Dr. Liu, who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery. "It can offer them hope when conservative measures such as medication or physical therapy don't do the trick."
Radiofrequency ablation is a minimally invasive procedure used to treat a variety of medical conditions that cause pain or dysfunction in different parts of the body. This procedure involves the use of high-frequency electrical currents to generate heat that destroys or damages targeted tissue or nerve endings.
How Is Radiofrequency Ablation Performed?
During an RFA procedure, a needle electrode is inserted through the skin and positioned next to the targeted tissue or nerve. The electrode is then connected to a radiofrequency generator, which delivers a high-frequency electrical current to the tissue or nerve, causing it to heat up and become damaged. The heat from the electrical current creates a lesion that disrupts the pain signals being sent to the brain.
Nerve ablation is often used to treat chronic pain conditions such as arthritis, back pain, neck pain, and headaches. It can also be used to treat other medical conditions such as liver cancer, lung cancer, and kidney tumors. In addition, RFA can be used to treat varicose veins, which are enlarged and twisted veins that can cause pain and discomfort.
RFA is a safe and effective treatment option for many patients. It is typically performed on an outpatient basis and requires only local anesthesia. Most patients experience significant pain relief within a few days after the procedure, although it may take several weeks for the full effects of the treatment to be felt.
After undergoing Radiofrequency Ablation, it is common to experience some pain and discomfort at the site of the procedure. This pain is typically mild to moderate and can last for several days or weeks, depending on the individual and the extent of the treatment.
The pain after RFA is caused by the heat generated during the procedure, which creates a lesion in the targeted tissue or nerve. The lesion disrupts the pain signals being sent to the brain, resulting in a decrease or elimination of pain over time. However, in the immediate aftermath of the procedure, it is not uncommon to experience some residual discomfort.
Like any medical procedure, radiofrequency ablation has some potential risks and side effects. These can include infection, bleeding, nerve damage, and skin burns. However, the risk of complications is low, and most patients tolerate the procedure well. It is important to keep in mind that some pain and discomfort after RFA is normal and expected. However, if you experience worse pain after radiofrequency ablation, persistent, or accompanied by other symptoms such as fever or swelling, it is important to contact your healthcare provider right away. They may recommend additional treatment or evaluation to address any underlying issues.
What Conditions Does Radiofrequency Ablation Treat?
- Spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the spinal canal that surrounds nerves
- Facet arthritis or Facet Joint Syndrome, the joints that support bending and twisting
- Spinal arthritis and other chronic back pain problems
- Whiplash injury
- Back Injuries
Regardless of the spinal problem being addressed by radiofrequency ablation, each triggers lingering neck or lower back pain that hasn't gone away after other treatments. But radiofrequency ablation itself shouldn't prove intimidating, Dr. Liu says, since only mild sedation and local anesthesia are needed to perform it. Once the patient is comfortable, the doctor uses x-ray guidance to help position a radiofrequency ablation probe next to painful spinal nerves, sending an electrical current that heats up tiny areas of nerve tissue to deaden pain signals.
Benefits of Radiofrequency Ablation
One of the most compelling advantages to radiofrequency ablation, Dr. Liu says, is that patients can get right up afterward and walk around. "Little downtime is necessary, which is always hugely appealing to busy people," he points out.
Other major benefits of radiofrequency ablation include:
- Only a tiny incision in the neck or back is necessary
- Little to no blood loss occurs
- Infection risks are very low
- Patients can go home soon after the procedure
- No discomfort experienced while the heat is applied
In summary, radiofrequency ablation is a minimally invasive procedure that uses high-frequency electrical currents to treat a variety of medical conditions. It can provide significant pain relief and improve overall quality of life for many patients. If you are considering RFA as a treatment option, it is important to discuss the risks and benefits with your healthcare provider to determine if it is the right choice for you.
"Patients are usually so relieved and happy to see how well radiofrequency ablation can solve their long-lasting pain problem," Dr. Liu says. "Whether their pain was caused by an injury, arthritis or another reason, the vast majority report significant pain relief that can last for years."
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