Lumbar radiofrequency ablation is a procedure that damages nerve endings that are sending pain signals to your brain. While the idea of damaging nerves might sound scary, this procedure is a safe and effective option for patients who have tried more conservative pain treatments without relief. At The Pain Experts of Arizona, we specialize in hard-to-treat pain conditions and can help you get back to living pain-free. Our comprehensive approach means we focus on treating your pain with innovative procedures and address long-term recovery through complementary therapies.
Learn more about radiofrequency ablation in the following video and article, or schedule your appointment to get started.
Many of the conditions that can lead to back pain also lead to pressure on or damage to the sensitive nerves in your lumbar spine. Lumbar radiofrequency ablation can offer pain relief in conjunction with other treatments for underlying pain conditions. Most often, lumbar radiofrequency ablation treats lower back pain that has not responded to other more conservative treatments.
While the radiofrequency ablation procedure can be performed at any level of the spine, lumbar radiofrequency ablation generally targets lower back pain that:
Is felt on one or both sides of the spine
Radiates outwards (but not below the knee)
Increases when you twist or lift objects
Decreases when you lie down
The cause of this type of pain can vary. Arthritis of the spine is a common condition treated with lumbar radiofrequency ablation, as is facet joint pain and sacroiliac joint pain.
Lumbar radiofrequency ablation benefits extend to a variety of chronic pain patients. Benefits include:
Immediate pain relief for many patients
Brief recovery time
Better function and mobility
Decreased pain medication use
Quick return to daily activities (e.g., work and leisure activities)
Helps patients avoid more invasive surgeries
People who have tried other treatments unsuccessfully may be good candidates for this treatment. Additionally, patients who have had pain relieved with a medial branch block (or other similar blocks) are good candidates for more permanent pain relief. Medial branch blocks help pinpoint the exact location of nerve damage or inflammation. With radiofrequency ablation, your doctor can then treat the source of your pain directly.
Another lumbar radiofrequency ablation benefit is its longevity. Successful procedures can offer as much as two years of pain relief (more commonly between six and 12 months). The targeted nerves may regrow, but the procedure can safely be repeated as necessary for pain relief.
The lumbar radiofrequency ablation procedure is performed on an outpatient basis and takes just a few hours from start to finish.
On the day of your procedure, you’ll change into a gown and position yourself face down on the examination table. This procedure is usually done without sedatives so that you can give your doctor feedback on pain relief. If you are feeling anxious about pain, your doctor may recommend a mild sedative before the procedure.
Otherwise, the lumbar radiofrequency ablation procedure is very similar to any nerve blocks you may have already had. Once you are comfortable on the table your doctor will clean and sterilize the ablation site. They will use a topical anesthetic before injecting a local anesthetic to minimize discomfort.
Using fluoroscopic (X-ray) guidance, your doctor inserts a thin, hollow needle to the nerve that is being treated. A contrast dye may be injected to ensure the needle’s proper position. Once the position is confirmed, your doctor first injects pain-relieving medication before following that with a 90-second burst of electrical current. This electrical current creates a lesion on the nerve that essentially blocks future pain signaling to the brain.
The lumbar radiofrequency ablation procedure, including forming the lesion, should not be uncomfortable. You may feel pressure, but the pain should be minimal.
Lumbar radiofrequency ablation recovery is nearly immediate. You will be able to step off the examination table immediately and walk around. Some patients feel near-instantaneous pain relief, while others may not experience any relief for up to three weeks. This depends on other medical conditions and the degree of pain you were experiencing.
Your doctor will observe you for a few minutes after you are finished, then release you to recover at home. It’s best to have a friend or family member drive you home, especially if you chose to take a mild sedative.
On the day of your procedure, take it easy. No strenuous activity or work. You may experience pain from the procedure for up to three days. This is residual from the ablation but is usually mild. Use an ice pack and over-the-counter pain-relieving medications, as recommended by your doctor.
Do not apply heat to the area of the procedure. Avoid baths for at least two days. You may shower (not too hot) 24 hours after your procedure if okayed by your doctor. Typically, patients can return to their normal activities after this period.
Patients with pacemakers may not be good candidates for lumbar radiofrequency ablation. Talk to your doctor if you are pregnant or taking blood thinners or other medications.
Although lumbar radiofrequency ablation side effects are mild, some patients may experience temporary numbness or pain at the site of the procedure. You may see minor bleeding and swelling at the procedure site, but this is normally temporary. Some people also experience a temporary increase in nerve pain before they find relief.
More serious lumbar radiofrequency ablation risks do exist and include the following:
Inflammation of the nerve (neuritis)
Nerve tissue growth (neuroma)
Allergic reaction to medications
Many of the lumbar radiofrequency ablation side effects and risks can be prevented by proper placement of the needle and electrical current. Look for a pain specialist with dedicated experience in this procedure. Be sure to ask questions before your appointment.