Radiofrequency ablation uses mild currents of electricity to help reduce pain. Derived from radio waves, the current works by heating up nerve tissue and interrupting the pain signals as they travel from the site of the pain to the brain. While RFA doesn’t “cure” pain, by interfering with nerve transmission, it reduces the sensations of pain, so other treatments like physical therapy can be more effective.
RFA can be used to treat different types of pain, but primarily it’s used in patients who suffer from chronic pain in the back and neck, as well as pain due to osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint condition that causes joint surfaces to wear away and break down over time.
RFA typically is performed using local anesthetics to numb the treatment site, sometimes combined with sedation to help patients relax. During the procedure, a small needle will be inserted into the area where pain is occurring with X-rays to guide its placement. The needle is used to deliver energy to the nerves at the site of pain, creating a small lesion or injury in the nerves so pain signals are blocked. Usually, a small lesion will be created first to ensure the correct site of pain is being treated. Once confirmed, a larger lesion will be created. Almost three-quarters of those treated with RFA experience relief from painful symptoms.
The effects of RFA can vary based on the cause and site of pain, usually lasting from six to twelve months. In some patients, pain relief persists for a much longer period of time.
RFA is performed on an outpatient basis with discharge occurring after a brief period of observation. There may be some mild discomfort, swelling or bruising at the site of the needle placement, but these effects are temporary. Driving and strenuous activities typically need to be avoided for a day or so to enable the area to begin healing.