FAQ’s on Radiofrequency Ablation

What is Radiofrequency Ablation?

This technique is a rather new inclusion among the options available to patients, and is considered to be in an investigative and experimental stage. Essentially, ablation is the controlled destruction of one or more nerves in an effort to provide Pain Relief to those patients with chronic complications. Current applications of a radiofrequency ablation include treatments available for patients with chronic neck or back pain, and are available as an option to patients who have had documented relief with a nerve block of these areas.

What will Radiofrequency Ablation treat?

This technique can be applied to almost any nerve of the body that is the root cause of symptomatic pains for the patient. Called RFA for short, ablation is commonly used for those patients suffering from degenerative facet arthritis resulting in chronic neck or Back Pain. The techniques for these areas have been proven effective and are considered to be reliable treatment options for a patient. There are newer ablation techniques still in the experimental stage for the treatment of occipital and sacroiliac joint nerve complications as well.

How is Radiofrequency Ablation performed?

Ablation is performed within a dedicated treatment center, and is offered as an outpatient procedure. It is common for the patient to be subjected to full IV sedation, but it is not an absolute. Patients who opt to remain awake will be given a strong painkiller and have the area of the nerved numbed completely. The treatment area will be sterilized, with the injection needle guided into the nerve via fluoroscopic imaging. This is a technique of multiple X-rays being taken of the work area in order to provide the attending physician with a current image of where the needle is within the patient.

The needle used for this procedure is actually an RFA probe, and when properly placed will be used to destroy the nerve ending. Stimulation of the needle on a small scale will occur prior to full destruction to ensure the needles are properly placed, as the goal of ablation is to destroy only the pain-causing nerve endings and not the nerve itself. If there is a reaction to stimulation of the needle, the needle is too close to the full nerve and will need re-positioned. Once positioning has been achieved correctly, the end of the RFA probe will be heated to deaden the nerve endings.

How well does Radiofrequency Ablation work?

While many treatment options available to patients deal with relief in terms of months, RFA treatment provides relief for 12-24 months on average. The sole reason this treatment does not provide permanent relief is that the nerve endings re-grow themselves after time, but are still susceptible to RFA treatment again. For many patients, subsequent treatments will provide similar if not identical results.

What are the risks of Radiofrequency Ablation?

There is only a small chance of negative effects occurring, but the effects that may occur are very real. There is the standard risk of infection, allergic reaction, or pain/swelling at the injection site that is present with each needle based treatment. The largest risk present is an incorrect placement of the RFA probe prior to being heated. While there testing of the probes placement prior to full heating to avoid this, it is still possible for the needle to be moved resulting in potential injury.

The largest risk present with this treatment is that is simply may not provide relief to the patient. While a medial branch nerve block is often performed prior to RFA ablation in order to the test the potential of the treatment, it is not a guaranteed success.

What is the bottom line with Radiofrequency Ablation?

For those patients that have successful ablation, relief can be obtained for an extended duration of time. As an outpatient procedure with low risk, RFA ablation should be something sought out if benefit can potentially be achieved.