Radiofrequency Ablation Overview
Suffering from neck, upper back, or shoulder pain?
Cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation (also known as Radiofrequency Ablation) uses radiofrequency waves to heat up medial branch nerves in your cervical spine. This heat damages the nerves to create a lesion that then blocks pain signals to the brain. The result? Profound, long-lasting relief for people living with chronic pain. The Pain Experts of Arizona are ready to help you get back to pain-free living with this innovative, minimally invasive procedure. Get in touch today to schedule your Arizona Radiofrequency Ablation consultation. For a guide to this procedure, watch the following video or continue reading.
Cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation (also referred to as cervical radiofrequency neurotomy) can treat chronic pain that originates from the facet joints in your neck. These facet joints connect each vertebra to the ones above and below. The joints allow for both movement and stability all along your spine.
The medial branch nerves are located on either side of every vertebra in the spine. They run all the way through your cervical spine—that is, the upper vertebrae that make up your neck. These nerves weave around and through the facet joints. They are thin but transmit powerful sensations to the brain. When the cervical vertebrae suffer from injury or damage due to disease or wear-and-tear, the medial branch nerves may become compressed by inflamed tissues. If this happens, pain can occur in the neck, head, shoulders, and upper back.
There are a variety of conditions that can benefit from cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation. They include:
If a spinal compression fracture occurs and places pressure on the medial branch nerves, cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation may provide pain relief during recovery as well.
One of the major cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation benefits is long-lasting pain relief. Even though damaged nerves can heal and re-grow, this generally takes between three and 12 months. During that time, many patients experience profound and total pain relief and a much-improved quality of life.
In a study from October 2020, researchers found that when used after a successful medial branch block, cervical medial radiofrequency ablation offered complete, long-lasting pain relief. This builds on earlier systematic reviews that found that cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation was more effective in relieving chronic neck pain than a simple steroid injection.
Cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation benefits also include the following:
- Quick recovery time
- Potential to decrease pain medication
- Improvement in mobility and function
In many cases, cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation can help people avoid more invasive surgeries and procedures.
Typically, the radiofrequency ablation procedure is not the first stop in the treatment of your neck pain. If you have chronic neck pain and your doctor suspects that the medial branch nerves are responsible, they use a cervical medical branch block as a diagnostic tool. In this procedure, an anesthetic is injected in the area around the affected medial branch nerves. If this provides pain relief, it pinpoints these nerves as the source of your pain. It also confirms that you may be a good candidate for the cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation procedure.
Prior to starting radiofrequency ablation Pheonix patients will be made comfortable with IV medication. This will not make you sleep but will relax you and help keep you comfortable. You will be awake during the procedure to give your doctor feedback on pain levels if they need it.
Once you are comfortable, your doctor will sterilize the area for the procedure. Two insulated needles are inserted using X-ray guidance. A small electrode is inserted in one of the needles. A weak radiofrequency current is applied to the affected medial branch nerves for less than two minutes. This current heats up the nerve to damage it. The damage severs the connection from the nerve to the brain that is sending pain signals.
Once the cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation procedure is complete, you will rest in recovery for observation. You may feel immediate pain relief, partial pain relief, or no pain relief directly after your procedure. It may take three weeks or more to get the full picture of the procedure’s effectiveness.
Because nerves heal and grow, you may need to repeat the cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation procedure from time to time. This is normal and safe.
Cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation recovery is usually quick, at least in terms of returning to your regular activities. Because you receive IV sedation, arrange for a friend or family member to drive you home. Plan to take the next 24 hours off completely to rest.
After the procedure, you may feel soreness in your neck. You may also experience minor swelling at the injection site. Ask your doctor about taking an over-the-counter, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory for pain. You can also apply an ice pack for swelling, if necessary.
Under your Arizona radiofrequency ablation provider’s guidance, you can gradually return to your normal activity level in the days and weeks following your procedure. Let your pain levels guide you. If something causes pain, take a break, slow down, and rest.
Cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation is a minimally invasive, low-risk procedure. As with any medical procedure, though, there are side effects and risks you should be aware of.
Cervical medial branch radiofrequency ablation side effects include:
- Soreness and swelling at the site of the procedure
- Numbness in the legs
- Increased pain for a few days
- No or minimal pain relief
Side effects are generally mild and resolve within a few days. Risks are also rare but can occur. These include:
- Irritation of the nerve (neuritis)
- Motor nerve damage (rare, as medial branch nerves control mostly sensation)
Work with a highly-qualified pain specialist to minimize your risks.