What is a Radiofrequency Ablation?

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA), also known as Rhizotomy, is a medical term used to describe a noninvasive technique that can be used to shrink the size of nodules, and tumors in the body.  For this reason, Radiofrequency ablation is used to treat a range of conditions which includes malignant tumors, chronic back, and neck pain, chronic venous insufficiency in the legs, arthritis, and other pain related to the degeneration of the joints. 

Speaking of pain, Radiofrequency ablation is commonly used in pain relief. The same minimally invasive procedures are applied, but to destroy the nerve fibers carrying pain signals to the brain. In this procedure, heat generated from radio waves is used to destroy pain-causing nerves. Pain alleviation is achieved because the nerves transmitting pain signals to the brain are damaged. 

So, if you are experiencing any condition mentioned above and you suffer recurrent pain, then, you are likely to be the next candidate for radiofrequency ablation. However, since Radiofrequency ablation involves the use of X-ray or fluoroscopic guidance, some people are usually exempted from this procedure. These include pregnant women, anyone with bleeding problems, and those who did not experience pain relief after pain receptor block injections. 

What to expect in a Radiofrequency Ablation Procedure?

Since this is a non-invasive procedure, it can be performed by a radiologist, a physiatrist, a neurologist, an anesthesiologist, or a surgeon. During the procedure, patients may be required to lie on their stomach, or on their side in case the physician is working on a neck procedure. Remember, it is a minimally invasive procedure so anesthesia is not required. However, the physician can administer a sedative through an intravenous (IV) line just to relax you. 

The physician will then use an anesthetic to numb the skin area around the spine before directing a special radiofrequency needle alongside the targeted nerves with the use of X-ray guidance. To confirm that the radiofrequency needle is properly positioned, a small amount of electrical current is passed to the targeted nerve through a probe placed in the needle. If the radiofrequency needle is properly positioned, the patient may experience muscle twitch or brief pain. Of course, the physician is expected to discuss and explain this to the patient. On average, the procedure may take one to two hours, depending on the number of treatments and the site at which the procedure is being performed. Overall, most patients have reported feeling either nothing or a mild warm sensation throughout the procedure. 

How is the recovery process?

Usually, the patient is shifted to a recovery room immediately after the RFA procedure where his or her vitals can be monitored for about an hour if a sedative was used: this may take about 15 minutes if a sedative was not used in the process.  It is normal for patients to report soreness or numbness of the skin in the targeted area after the procedure. The physician can either resolve to use an ice pack to intermittently reduce swelling and numb the pain on the injection site or recommend warm showers one to two days following the procedure. 

How effective is a Radiofrequency Ablation?

After RFA, most patients tend to experience pain relief from 1 to 3 weeks after the procedure. During this period, patients are advised to rest for several days before going back to their normal activities. Or, they can choose to engage in regular activities while monitoring their pain levels. The physician can also enroll the patient into a guided physical therapy regimen just to boost the patient’s strength and safely improve activity tolerance. Overall, the effectiveness of the RFA may last 3 to 12 months which usually varies from patient to patient. In some cases, the nerves may regenerate and the pain may return. 

Are there risks or side effects of Radiofrequency Ablation?

RFA is not only a low-risk but also a safe procedure. Even though it is rare, complications can be anything from bleeding, infection, or nerve damage. Some of the common side effects include soreness or numbness of the skin in the targeted area after the procedure. Take a moment to discuss the potential risk and side effects of RFA with your doctor before the procedure. 

What are the advantages of Radiofrequency Ablation?

Well, it minimizes the use of invasive techniques such as surgical operations. It reduces the recovery time significantly, it relieves pain for a prolonged period without the need to use pain medication. Also, RFA can be used to treat a wide range of medical conditions.