Hope for relief may seem elusive when chronic back or neck pain does not respond to conservative measures such as medication or physical therapy. But an increasingly popular, minimally invasive technique known as radiofrequency nerve ablation can spell the difference between back pain that will not quit and more comfortable and functional days ahead, according to Endoscopic Spine Surgeon Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder of Atlantic Spine Center.
With results lasting 18 months or even longer, radiofrequency nerve ablation (RFA) is considered a semi-permanent treatment for lingering back and neck pain that is due to arthritis, injury or another cause, Dr. Liu says. The increasingly sought-after technique uses a heated probe to disrupt pain signals being transmitted from the spinal nerves to the brain.
“Over recent years, radiofrequency nerve ablation has continued to show strong evidence of providing marked improvement in back and neck pain patients who just couldn’t find relief using other approaches,” explains Dr. Liu, who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery. “About three-quarters of these patients report feeling much better after the procedure, and they’re especially happy about the long-lasting effects.”
Who does RFA help?
The one trait shared by everyone who might benefit from RFA is chronic back or neck pain that hasn’t adequately responded to other treatments. These patients may be dealing with a painful spinal condition such as:
- Spinal stenosis, meaning the spinal canal surrounding nerves has narrowed
- Spinal arthritis
- Facet arthritis, which specifically strikes spinal joints that enable twisting and bending
- Whiplash injury
- Sprains and strains
The radiofrequency ablation procedure itself is simple and straightforward, Dr. Liu says. At an outpatient surgical center, you’ll first be made comfortable using mild sedation and local anesthesia. Then, your doctor will use x-ray guidance to accurately position the RFA probe next to painful spinal nerves. Its electrical current, produced by a radio waves, heats tiny areas of nerve tissue to dull and deaden pain signals.
“You’ll immediately be able to get up and walk around afterward,” Dr. Liu reports. “Very little downtime is involved.”
Long list of benefits
- A quick recovery tops the list of benefits from RFA, but many more follow, Dr. Liu notes. These include:
- It’s minimally invasive, requiring only a tiny incision. The RF probe is a needle.
- No damage is done to muscles or soft tissue surrounding the spine.
- You lose little or no blood loss at all because it is not a surgery.
- Infection risks are small.
- You won’t experience any pain or discomfort when the heated probe is working with local anesthesia.
- You can go home shortly after the procedure.
“We all lead busy lives, so the idea that you can achieve long-lasting back or neck pain relief with such a quick procedure and recovery is tantalizing,” Dr. Liu says. “Radiofrequency nerve ablation is definitely one of the strongest tools in our arsenal to help back pain patients feel better faster and get back to doing all the things they love.”