Is Radiofrequency Ablation the Right Treatment for Your Chronic Back Pain?

Chronic back pain is debilitating. Managing it can be a daunting task.

Common front-line treatments — such as physical therapy and medicines — are effective for some of the millions of Indians seeking relief from chronic back pain. But back muscles and spines are complicated, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer for how to cope with back pain.

Maybe you've tried painkillers to relieve your back pain. May be you have tried other conservative treatment like physiotherapy, exercise therapy for muscle strengthening or cognitive behavioural therapies. Maybe those haven't been the answer you've been looking for.

Maybe radiofrequency ablation (RFA) could be your solution.

The procedure is designed to be an alternative for people whose pain hasn't improved with medication or therapy, or who aren't candidates for surgical treatment. The degree of pain relief experienced varies from person to person, the Cleveland Clinic says, but it could last months or even years — meaning you can get back to living your best life.

What is Radiofrequency Ablation?

RFA uses heat energy to prevent nerves in the base of the spine from sending pain signals to the brain. The heat destroys the nerve fibres, effectively turning off their ability to send pain signals.

Using imaging scans as a guide, your doctor will gently insert a probe into the nerve areas that are causing your pain. Once the probe is in place, it's connected to a radiofrequency generator, which creates a high-frequency current that generates enough targeted heat to relieve pain.

Because the procedure is minimally invasive, the risk of complication during or after the procedure is relatively low. The recovery time is also significantly reduced, which means you regain function sooner and make a quicker return to your everyday life.

Am I a Good Candidate?

According to the Mayo Clinic, RFA is best for people who are experiencing pain in the back, neck and sacroiliac or buttocks. It might also be helpful for people who are managing long-term joint pain, particularly in the knees and hips.

Before the procedure, a specialist will test the targeted nerves to ensure that they're the underlying cause of pain. Some facilities might use a local anaesthetic with or without steroid injection. If a person experiences significant relief, it's a good indication that radiofrequency ablation could be an effective form of treatment.

The Mayo Clinic also indicates that a person might be a candidate for radiofrequency ablation if other, less invasive interventions, such as physical therapy and medication have been unsuccessful, or if surgery is not a viable option.

Anyone considering this procedure should begin by discussing the therapy with their doctor.

What Can I Expect from Radiofrequency Ablation?

The ablation procedure is typically done by a pain management doctor who's been specifically trained to perform it.

This procedure can be done under local anaesthesia or with light sedation. You'll need to discuss the latter with your doctor. Sedation will help keep you comfortable, but its lasting effects mean that you'll need a friend or family member to drive you home once the procedure is done.

As you lie on your stomach, your doctor will apply a local anaesthetic and insert the probe to treat the nerve. You might experience some numbness or pain at the insertion site after the procedure is completed. As with any invasive procedure, there is some risk of infection, bleeding and nerve damage, but these side effects are rare and vary from person to person.

A Minimally Invasive Solution

RFA can be an option for people who are trying to figure out how to cope with back pain and need a less invasive approach than surgery, or for whom other interventions have been ineffective.

If you're experiencing persistent back pain, your doctor can help you decide if RFA is a good option for you.

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