Cervical Radiofrequency Ablation, commonly known as radiofrequency ablation is a minimally invasive nonsurgical procedure used to destroy the nerve fibers that car carries pain signals to the brain.
It is a procedure used to create a lasting relief for patients who are suffering from chronic pains in the neck, lower back, and arthritic joints.
The procedure entails using radiofrequency waves or heat to stop or reduce the transmission of pains to the brain.
The radiofrequency waves burn (ablate) the nerve that is responsible for the transmission of pain signals to the brain, this cut off the transmission of the pain and invariably stop the pain.
How Nerves Send Pain Signals to the Brain?
The facet joints allow the spine to twist from side to side and also move forward and backward. The facet joints are protected by a capsule of soft tissue. A layer of slick white cartilage covers the joint and helps the joint to glide easily whenever you feel like moving or bending.
The cartilage can wear thin or get damaged over time. When this occurs, the joints may become enlarged and spurs of bone may grow around or on the joint. These growths cause pain, swelling in the joints or arthritis.
Nerves from the spinal cord pass through the facet joints and extend into the other parts of the body which controls the activities in the body, movement and transmit sensations.
The nerves serving the facet joints are called the medial branches. They also carry pain signals to the spinal cord and transmit to the brain.
When you feel pain in your joints, it is a warning sign that means that your joint is irritated, it has become enlarged or there are some irregular growths on/around your joint.
Who is the Right Candidate for Cervical Radiofrequency Ablation?
Cervical radiofrequency ablation is used to treat individuals suffering chronic pains in the neck, lower back, peripheral nerve, neuropathic pain conditions, spinal arthritis, and other certain pain-related conditions.
However, for an individual to be the right candidate for radiofrequency ablation, he/she must have experienced successful pain relief after undergoing a diagnostic nerve/pain receptor block injection.
Pregnant women, individuals with infections or bleeding issues are not ideal candidates for radiofrequency ablation.
How to prepare for cervical radiofrequency ablation?
Before undergoing the procedure, you will be asked some questions about your health and any medications you are taking currently. Your doctor will review your medical history and plan the best location where the ablation will be done.
If you have any allergies, you need to let the doctor know and if there is anything you want to know, ask your doctor.
If you are currently taking aspirin or blood-thinning medication, you will need to stop taking them for at least 11 days before the procedure.
You should not eat any food or drink any liquid for at least 6 hours before the procedure. Arrange for someone to drive you back home.
How the procedure is done?
You will need to lie down on an x-ray table. You will be administered local anesthetic at the area where the radiofrequency ablation will be done.
This is to numb the area and to reduce the discomfort you will feel during the procedure.
You will need to be awake during the procedure so you can let the doctor know how you are feeling at any given time.
The doctor will then direct a thin hollow needle into the area where the pain is felt using a fluoroscope. It is the fluoroscope that the doctor uses to watch the needle through the fluoroscope monitor.
The doctor uses the fluoroscope so as to make sure that the needle goes in the right location. Contrast may also be injected for additional clarity.
When the needle is in the right position, you will be given a numbing medication. A tiny electrode is inserted inside the needle and radiofrequency waves are passed through the needle.
The radiofrequency wave creates a small and precise burn. This destroys nerve tissue that is responsible for the transmission of pain and stops the pain transmission.
The pain is successfully stopped from transmitting to the brain, hence you won’t feel any more pain.
The burn typically takes approximately 90 seconds for each nerve. Multiple nerves can be burnt at the same time. The procedure takes between 15-45 minutes to complete.
After the procedure
After the procedure, you will be taken to a recovery area and monitored for a short time. The nurses will monitor you to make sure that there are no complications.
You will be allowed to go back home but someone will need to drive you home. And you are not allowed to drive for 24 hours after the procedure.
You may feel pain for up to 14 days after the procedure. The pain is normal; it is as a result of the residual effects of the nerve burn. Doctors give pain relievers medications to help relieve the pain.
You may experience some swelling or bruises at the area where the needle was inserted. You can use a cold ice pack to reduce the swelling.
The patient can go back to work and your daily activities after 24 to 72 hours.
What to expect?
You are expected to schedule follow-up appointments with your doctor and inform your doctor of any improvements or concerns.
The pain will relieve you for about 9 months to over 2 years. It is possible that you will start feeling the pain again after some months or years.
This is only possible when the nerve tissue that was burnt regrows. A nerve tissue may regrow between 6-12 months after it was burnt.
When such a situation occurs, the procedure will have to be repeated. The success rate for radiofrequency ablation is 70-80%.
Risks or complications
Radiofrequency ablation is relatively a safe procedure with very low complications or risks.
Complications that might occur include localized numbness, infection, allergic reaction to medications used, temporary increase in nerve pain, neuritis neuroma. Some patients might not experience pain relief, this is however in rear cases.