Radio frequency treatment, often referred to as ablation therapy, is a method of therapy which uses radio waves to create an electrical current. This current then delivers heat to targeted nerve tissues to reduce chronic pain symptoms. While it is most commonly associated with spinal pain radio frequency ablation is now used to treat a variety of different types of pain throughout the body. To understand what this option is and why it is growing in popularity it is important to look at the underlying technology, benefits, side effects, and alternatives.
Radio frequency treatment is typically performed as an outpatient procedure and requires minimal pharmacologic intervention. To minimize discomfort and anesthetic or mild sedative may be given to a patient during the procedure. Imaging techniques such as x-rays are utilized during ablation to help guide the needle and ensure proper needle insertion and electrode placement.
Once this is complete, a high-frequency current is transmitted through the electrodes directly into affected nerve areas or tissue. The current generates heat which is where the therapeutic effects are found. Essentially, nerve function is disrupted by the high-frequency current which eliminates the nerves ability to transmit pain signals to the spinal cord.
There are a variety of benefits associated with radio frequency treatment. One of the most commonly cited benefits is a significant reduction in pain as well as longer-lasting pain relief compared to steroid injections, which is the popular alternative. Another benefit is a low complication and morbidity rate which is important considering how dangerous more invasive surgeries can be. Some studies note that nearly half of all back-pain sufferers are not helped by surgery at all. Along with pain relief, radio frequency treatment can lead to greater range of motion, lower use of analgesics, and improved quality of life.
There are very few risk factors are side effects of ablation procedures. Some noted risks are like that of surgery such as permanent nerve damage or infection. Thus, radio frequency ablation is not appropriate for patients with active infections or those who suffer with blood clotting issues. Additional side effects include minor bleeding, swelling, skin discoloration, and bruising at the needle insertion site. In most cases, the side effects will subside during the first few days following the procedure. All the side effects should be carefully monitored following a procedure; however, radio frequency treatment has proven to be a safe and effective option for chronic pain and the number and severity of complications are minimal compared to other popular alternative such as steroids or more invasive surgery.
With invasive surgeries and steroid treatments being the two viable alternatives to radio frequency treatment is easy to see why ablation has grown in popularity. The side effects are minimal and the long-term pain relief provided is typically greater than steroids or surgery alone.