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Radiofrequency Ablation for Chronic Back Pain Relief

Radiofrequency Ablation (also known as Radiofrequency Neurotomy) is a minimally invasive procedure used to treat chronic back pain, including facet joint pain or sacroiliac joint pain caused by arthritis or other degenerative changes, or from an injury. This procedure can provide lasting relief from patients suffering from chronic pain, letting them resume normal function and enjoyment of life.

There are two primary types of radiofrequency ablation:

  • A medial branch neurotomy (ablation) affects the nerves carrying pain from the facet joints
  • A lateral branch neurotomy (ablation) affects nerves that carry pain from the sacroiliac joints.

These medial or lateral branch nerves do not control any muscles or sensation in the arms or legs, so a heat lesion poses little danger of negatively affecting those areas.

During this minimally-invasive procedure, the physician uses heat from radio waves to treat painful facet joints in your lower back. This procedure is also called radiofrequency rhizotomy or radiofrequency ablation. It can treat pain that doesn’t respond to medications or to physical therapy.

Diagnostic Procedure: Medial Branch Block

Before the radiofrequency ablation procedure, a lateral branch or medial branch nerve block will have already been performed to prove that the patient’s pain is being transmitted by those nerves. The medial branch or lateral branch block acts as a test run before the neurotomy procedure.

This is an injection of numbing medicine. It bathes the medial branch nerves, which attach to the facet joints of your spine. These nerves hurt when facet joints are injured or diseased. The injection helps find the source of your pain. And it may relieve your pain for a brief time.

Common Questions about Radiofrequency Ablation

Radiofrequency ablation is a typically very safe procedure. As with any minimally invasive medical procedure, there are risks that you’ll want to discuss with your physician treatment is administered. The potential side effects or risks occur infrequently:

  • Temporary pain, swelling or bruising at the injection sites
  • There may be an increase of pain after the procedure but it will typically go away within seven days
  • Infection can occur, although rare, especially if the procedure is not conducted in a controlled, sterile environment
A radiofrequency ablation can be a very effective way to find relief from chronic neck and/or back pain. As with most any treatment, you’ll want to discuss with your doctor whether you are a good candidate for this procedure. Make sure that your physician knows if you have any types of allergies (especially to any steroids or anesthetics), are on blood-thinning medication or have an active infection.
The degree and length of pain relief will vary according to the cause and the location of the pain. There have been many patients that experience relief from six-to-12 months, while others will have relief for years. You’ll want to discuss your specific condition with your physician.

The radiofrequency ablation procedure involves inserting a special needle through skin and deeper tissues to the medial nerves and there may be some pain involved. However, your doctor will numb the skin and deeper tissues with a local anesthetic before inserting the needle. Many patients also receive a mild sedative to help make the procedure less painful and less anxiety-inducing.

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