Back pain is a debilitating problem for millions of Americans. While there are some causes of back pain that can be resolved with the right type of treatment, other types of back pain can be chronic, meaning that it lasts for a significant amount of time without much or any relief. This makes it extremely challenging for these people who have chronic back pain to function as they want to. So, what can be done to help?
One method that some people with chronic pain are considering is radiofrequency ablation for back pain. This treatment option has the opportunity to provide a lot of pain relief, but there are some things you should know before making the decision as to whether or not radiofrequency ablation is right for you. Let’s review exactly what this treatment is, who it works best for, and the risks versus rewards.
What Is Radiofrequency Ablation?
Radiofrequency ablation (RFA for short) is a type of pain management approach that works to eliminate some pain signals from reaching the brain. Most often, RFA can be done to these areas of the body:
- Sacroiliac (SI) joints
RFA targets a specific portion of nerves with a current of radio waves. These radio waves heat up the nerve tissue and effectively stop these nerves from sending pain signals to the brain.
This is considered a minor medical procedure. The process of getting radiofrequency ablation for back pain is overall relatively simple: a medical professional begins by assessing the area where the ablation needs to occur. For people with back pain, this could be in the facet joints (which give your spine the ability to bend, flex, and move comfortably). This might also be in the sacroiliac joints above the buttock.
From there, the medical expert will insert a small, hollow needle into the specified area. The doctor will use a special type of X-ray to get an accurate placement of the needle throughout the whole procedure. A local anesthetic is used to keep you comfortable.
To get the radio waves to go through, a microscopic electrode is fed through the hollow needle and to the targeted area. The heated current can then travel through to the nerves that need to be blocked.
The ultimate goal of RFA is to:
- Lower pain levels
- Decrease the need for pain medications
- Improve a patient’s quality of life
But not everybody who has back pain qualifies for radiofrequency ablation treatment. So, how do you know if you’re a good candidate?
Who Can Have This Procedure?
Radiofrequency ablation for back pain isn’t for everyone. Specifically, it wouldn’t be a good treatment option for people who infrequently experience back pain or for those who have other, effective means of pain management. For example, somebody who has an acute back injury that is temporary might do physical therapy and at-home exercises to work through the source of the pain. Often, these pain management techniques can be helpful without much more intervention needed.
But some people have longer-lasting concerns. For these people with chronic back pain, finding the right treatment plan is crucial to living a full, healthy, and happy life. This is when radiofrequency ablation would be most beneficial.
People who may benefit from RFA are those who have chronic conditions such as arthritis. To be even more specific, arthritis of the spine, called spondylosis, is a condition that can cause a lot of swelling and stiffness in the facet joints. This can cause debilitating pain that RFA might be able to relieve.
Many patients with arthritis need more intensive pain management options like RFA because other traditional methods simply don’t work. However, it’s also important to note that RFA isn’t a cure-all. Often, there are certain requirements you must meet before being recommended for RFA. And after the treatment, there are certain things you’ll need to keep in mind to recover well.
What Are Some Things You Should Know Before Having RFA for Back Pain?
One thing to be aware of before you have radiofrequency ablation for back pain is that your doctor might test the effectiveness of this procedure ahead of time. This means that that might begin by injecting a nerve block medication into the area that would be treated to make sure that it actually works. If the nerve block helps to alleviate some pain, you are most likely good to move on to the next steps of RFA.
While having a radiofrequency ablation for back pain can have life-changing benefits, it’s also important to be informed about all of the potential risks before having this. As with any procedure, risk of infection is something to keep in mind. You also might experience some soreness after the procedure. Typically, applying an ice pack to the affected area can help.
RFA can also cause some bleeding. If you are on blood thinning medications, RFA might not be for you. Be sure to talk with your doctor about any health conditions, medications, and other current symptoms you might have so that your treatment can be as safe and specialized as possible.
You will also need to arrange for transportation after this procedure. Though sedation isn’t required, some patients opt to have medications that make them more relaxed for the procedure. Others are simply too sore or out of it. Thus, somebody will need to drive you home. You should also not lift anything heavy or do any exercising for 24 hours after having an RFA procedure. Keep an eye on any other side effects of RFA, including swelling, bleeding, excessive pain, or other symptoms that are out of the ordinary.
What Are the Next Steps?
If you are struggling with chronic back pain without any relief from other treatment methods, consider talking to your trusted health care team about the benefits of RFA. To learn more from others who have had this procedure, get in touch with the Pain Resource Community. So many people struggle with chronic back pain—through this network, you can find solutions and support for similar concerns.
Most importantly, allow yourself the hope of being pain free one day. With the right treatment approach, you will be able to better manage from day to day.
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