Treating Pain with Radiofrequency Ablations

Jun 6, 2023 | Pain Management

Chronic pain affects millions of people worldwide, often significantly impacting their daily lives. Sufferers will go to great lengths to reduce their pain, usually through one or more methods including pain management interventions, medication, physical therapy, rehabilitation, surgery, and a variety of other therapies. While sometimes the treatments work, oftentimes they don’t, leaving patients frustrated and even hopeless.

In recent years, radiofrequency ablation (RFA) has emerged as an effective and minimally invasive treatment option for those suffering from chronic pain — particularly pain in the neck, back, knee, or shoulder areas. 

What is radiofrequency ablation, and can it be used to manage your pain?

Understanding Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is defined as any pain lasting longer than three months, persisting beyond the normal time expected for healing. It can often be difficult for medical practitioners to pinpoint the source of chronic pain, which can result from a wide range of causes including injuries, surgeries, and medical conditions such as arthritis, cancer, or nerve damage.

The effects of chronic pain can be far-reaching. Many individuals report experiencing difficulty sleeping, decreased mobility, and reduced quality of life — not to mention the mental and emotional toll pain can have on a person.

Many patients turn to more extreme solutions such as opioids or invasive surgery in an attempt to eliminate their pain. Those options, however, are often accompanied by harmful side effects including addiction.

Thankfully, there are new, advanced treatments for chronic pain that can be more effective and less harmful. Radiofrequency ablations are one of those procedures that are growing in popularity.

What Is Radiofrequency Ablation?

Radiofrequency ablation is a medical procedure that uses electrical currents produced by radio waves to heat up targeted nerve tissue. By heating the nerves, RFA disrupts the pain signals they send to the brain, relieving chronic pain, typically for a longer period of time than an injection.

There are two types of RFA: thermal and pulsed. Thermal RFA involves continuous heating of the nerve tissue, while pulsed RFA delivers short bursts of energy. Both types aim to provide long-lasting pain relief with minimal side effects.

Conditions Treated with RFA

Radiofrequency ablation can treat several chronic pain conditions, including:

  • Arthritis or injury-related pain in the small joints of the spine
  • Pain in the joint connecting the spine to the pelvis
  • Pain caused by irritated spinal nerves in the lower back
  • Pain resulting from damage or dysfunction of the nervous system

One of the benefits of RFA is its ability to target specific nerves responsible for causing pain, providing targeted relief.

Radiofrequency Ablations for Back Pain

RFA is a safe and effective treatment for back pain. Many pain management practitioners use it in conjunction with other pain management treatments such as physical therapy and medication.

The success rate of RFA for back pain is about 70% — meaning that about seven out of ten people who have the procedure experience significant relief from their pain. As a long-lasting treatment, the effects of radiofrequency ablations for back pain can last for several months or even years.

Radiofrequency Ablations for Neck Pain

Neck pain is another condition frequently targeted with RFA. Radiofrequency ablations for neck pain are typically performed on an outpatient basis and take roughly 30 to 45 minutes. Many pain management specialists prefer this method over riskier solutions such as invasive surgery, particularly in the cervical and thoracic areas of the spine.

Similar to treatments for back pain, the success rate of the procedure for neck pain is about 70%, and its effects can also last for months or years.

Understanding the RFA Procedure

It’s very helpful for chronic pain patients to understand what happens before, during, and after radiofrequency ablation treatments. With a thorough knowledge of what to expect, patients can keep their expectations in line with the reality of this advanced, yet common medical procedure. 

Before the Procedure

Before undergoing RFA, patients will have a consultation with a pain specialist to discuss their symptoms, medical history, and treatment options. Diagnostic tests, such as X-rays or nerve blocks, may be performed to identify the exact source of your pain. These prerequisite diagnostic tests are often required by insurance providers prior to RFA treatments.

During the Procedure

The RFA procedure is typically performed under local anesthesia to numb the treatment area and conscious sedation is often an option for patients. A fluoroscope (C-arm machine) is used to guide the placement of a radiofrequency needle near the target nerve. Once the needle is in position, an electrical current passes through it to heat the nerve tissue. The entire procedure usually takes less than an hour.

After the Procedure

Following RFA, patients may experience some temporary, minor side effects such as soreness, swelling, or bruising at the needle insertion site. Most patients can return to their normal activities within a few days. The pain specialist will schedule follow-up appointments to monitor their progress and evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment.

Benefits of RFA for Pain Management

There are several advantages to using radiofrequency ablation as a pain management strategy:

  • Many patients experience significant relief from their chronic pain following RFA.
  • Unlike surgery, RFA is a minimally invasive procedure with little downtime.
  • The risks associated with RFA are generally low when performed by an experienced practitioner.
  • Most patients can resume normal activities within a few days of the procedure.
  • While individual results vary, RFA has been shown to provide long-lasting pain relief for many patients.

Risks and Potential Complications

While RFA is considered a safe and effective treatment for chronic pain, there are potential risks and complications to be aware of, including:

  • Infection
  • Bleeding
  • Nerve damage
  • Temporary pain increase

Discuss these risks with your healthcare provider and weigh them against the potential benefits before deciding on RFA as a treatment option.

HPM: Experts in Radiofrequency Ablations

When considering RFA, every patient and their personal care provider should weigh its benefits against those of other treatments and discuss their options thoroughly. Factors such as invasiveness, potential side effects, recovery time, and long-term effectiveness should be taken into account when making a decision.

HPM is a leading provider of pain management therapies in rural communities throughout the country. We operate clinics in a dozen states (and growing), typically in partnership with local critical access hospitals, and we employ only highly qualified and certified medical practitioners such as registered nurses. Our unique training program ensures that every one of our specialists is fully prepared to perform RFA safely and effectively.

If you are struggling with chronic pain, consider consulting with a pain specialist to determine if RFA may be a suitable treatment option for you. You can also visit our website to see if there’s a pain management clinic near you.