A radiofrequency ablation procedure is an effective tool in relieving chronic pain related to arthritis in the spine (i.e. neck or low back) or joints. An RFA procedure is minimally invasive and consists of administering radiofrequency waves to certain nerves. By doing so, pain signals carried to the brain by those nerves are disrupted and thus, the perception of pain is hindered or significantly diminished.
How does it work?
First, the patient will undergo a diagnostic trial of a medial branch block (MBB). During this procedure, a local anesthetic is delivered to medial branch nerves located at the site of interest (i.e. neck or low back) under X-ray guidance. The patient is typically wide awake during the procedure, but can be put under general anesthesia in certain cases. The local anesthetic administered to the nerves will typically last for 6 hours after the procedure. If the patient experiences significant relief of pain during that time, it indicates that the chronic pain stems from the arthritic areas of their spine or joints. If this is the case, then the MBB procedure is repeated after two weeks to rule out placebo effect. If the patient experiences significant relief with the second MBB, then the patient is a candidate for the RFA procedure.
During the RFA procedure, the patient is usually placed under general anesthesia while radiofrequency waves are delivered via a special radiofrequency needle to the target nerves under X-ray guidance. This is not a surgical procedure and patients typically recover completely within 2-3 weeks post procedure. After the procedure, it is normal for patients to experience soreness at the injection site. Other complications include bleeding, infection and nerve damage, although these are rare.
The success rate for an RFA is approximately 70%, with most patients experiencing pain relief lasting from 12 to 18 months. Eventually, pain relief will begin to wear off as those nerves begin regenerating. At that time, the RFA procedure can be safely repeated to provide further relief of pain for the patient.
An anonymous patient, Mr. R (69 year old male), underwent a lumbar RFA for relief of low back pain and reports having “complete and total relief” of back pain after the procedure. This procedure has helped him get his life back and he has experienced a “night and day” difference in his quality of life. He states that his “wife, family members and friends have all mentioned that [he is] a brand new person” since undergoing this procedure.