Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA): A Treatment For Lower Back Pain

When medications and physical therapy no longer offer adequate relief for back pain, you may seek other ways to manage the pain – even if only temporarily. Studies indicate that a medical procedure known as radiofrequency ablation, also referred to as radiofrequency neurotomy, can help alleviate chronic lower back pain, including back pain due to arthritis. But before deciding whether RFA is the right choice for you, it helps to know more about the procedure.

How the Procedure Works

Although you will be awake during the procedure, which is usually performed on an out-patient basis, you may be given a local anesthetic and mild sedative so that you don't feel pain while the doctor performs the procedure. A small needle is then inserted into the area where you normally have pain.

Using X-ray imaging to guide the needle to the correct position, the doctor inserts a microelectrode through the needle. When the needle and electrode are in place at the location of your pain, the tip of the needle heats the surrounding tissue as a radiofrequency current passes through it.

Radio waves target nerves surrounding the facet or sacroiliac joints located on each side of the lower spine. Heating the nerve tissue in the affected area blocks pain signals that travel from the spine to the brain.

Degree of Pain Relief

How much pain relief you get from RFA varies depending on the kind of pain you suffer as well as the type of arthritis causing the pain. If the procedure is effective at alleviating your back pain, it may continue to give you pain relief for up to 9 months. For some people, pain relief lasts longer. Once the ablated nerves regenerate and the effect of RFA wears off, you can receive another treatment.

Possible Side Effects

Although the radiofrequency ablation procedure generally is safe, some people suffer tenderness and skin bruising where the needle is injected. The bruising normally heals within a few days.

While you may experience leg numbness due to the local anesthesia you receive intravenously during the procedure, the problem should disappear within a few hours after RFA. You also may experience mild back pain once the anesthesia wears off, but the discomfort should go away after a couple of days.

Other Potential Complications

Since infection and bleeding at the needle insertion site are potential complications that can occur following the procedure, your doctor may not recommend this type of treatment to relieve your back pain. Although complications are rare, you are at higher risk if you have an active infection at the time of treatment or a bleeding disorder that prevents your blood from clotting the way it should. Therefore, if you are considering radiofrequency ablation, discuss with your doctor any other health problems you have.

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