Neck and back pain are oftentimes caused by improperly firing nerves or from nerves that are regularly transmitting pain signals due to being compressed or damaged. Sometimes a surgeon can address the issue by freeing the compressed nerve with a decompression procedure, but if that is unlikely to do the trick or the nerve is firing due to irreversible damage, sometimes a different operation is required.
In these instances, a neurosurgeon may rely on a radiofrequency ablation procedure. We explain how the surgery is performed in today’s blog.
Understanding Radiofrequency Ablation
Radiofrequency ablation, also sometimes called a rhizotomy, is a nonsurgical procedure that seeks to disrupt the relay of a pain sensation along the nerve in route to the brain. Using radiofrequency waves, a surgeon will heat up or “ablate” a section of the nerve such that pain signals can’t pass along to the brain. Essentially, it’s like removing part of a train track. If the track isn’t complete, the train can’t reach it’s destination. The same goes for a pain signal.
The procedure can treat a few different nerve conditions, but it’s often used to help treat chronic pain, spondylosis and sacroilitis along with nerve pain in the neck or spine. For the right patient, it can be the perfect solution to their nerve-related pain.
Benefits of radiofrequency ablation include:
- The ability to avoid a surgical operation
- Immediate pain relief
- Short recovery time
- Limited need for opioids or pain medication
- Improved area function
- Quicker return to physical activities
How Is A Radiofrequency Ablation Performed?
A radiofrequency ablation is oftentimes performed by a neurologist or neurosurgeon with the aid of fluoroscopic (x-ray) guidance. The entire procedure can be completed in about a half an hour.
After the patient has completed their pre-operative care routine, they will be taken to a room and asked to lie on their stomach. Local anesthetic is used to numb the treatment area, and a low-dose sedative is typically given to help with any discomfort, but the patient remains awake throughout the procedure in order to give feedback to the surgeon.
Once the area is numbed, the doctor will insert a thin hollow needle into the area of pain with the help of x-ray guidance. This allows the surgeon to see exactly where the needle is located. Discomfort is typically measured in terms of a pressure sensation, not pain. Once the needle is in place, a numbing medication is released. Then, through the hollow opening in the needle, radiofrequency is delivered to create a small and precise burn. The surgeon guides the location of the heat source to destroy a small portion of the nerve such that pain signals cannot pass through. It only takes a minute or two to address a nerve, and multiple nerves may be ablated depending on your pain.
Once the nerve has been ablated, the surgeon removes the needle and the patient is told to take their time sitting up and eventually standing and walking. After a short monitoring period, and with clearance from the surgeon, the patient can be discharged, although it is recommended that someone else drive them home. Patients may experience some soreness or discomfort in the area for up to two weeks after the procedure, but that tends to fade quickly and most patients can return to work within a day or two. Many patients experience encouraging results with the procedure, although it’s possible that the nerve regrows and fixes itself after 6-12 months, meaning another ablation or procedure could become necessary.
For more information, reach out to Dr. Chang’s office today.