Radiofrequency Ablation: Procedure & Side Effects

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Radiofrequency ablation is a minimally invasive medical procedure used to treat chronic pain. In this lesson, we will explore the procedure and its possible side effects.

What Is Radiofrequency Ablation?

Advances in medical technology have enabled us to come up with some cool ways to treat various conditions. Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is a medical procedure used to treat chronic pain. It's minimally invasive and performed as an outpatient procedure, usually lasting less than 90 minutes. As mentioned, RFA is usually used to treat chronic pain, especially in the neck or back. It works by using the electrical current produced by radio waves to target a specific nerve area. About 70% of patients experience pain relief lasting between 3 and 18 months.

The Radiofrequency Ablation Procedure

If a physician identifies a patient as a good fit for RFA, he will instruct the patient to fast (avoid eating) 6-8 hours beforehand. The procedure starts by inserting an intravenous (IV) needle to administer a local anesthetic (numbing agent) and perhaps a mild sedative. The patient is kept awake throughout the procedure, but shouldn't feel any pain due to the anesthetic.

The doctor then uses an X-ray machine called a fluoroscope to find the target nerve and its surrounding tissue. Once the site is found, a hollow needle is inserted in the tissue. A microelectrode is inserted through the needle, and the radio waves being producing heat. As heat is produced, it creates a heat lesion on the tissue. This lesion acts as a blocker, preventing pain signals from being sent back to the brain.

A fluoroscope machine uses X-rays to find the target nerve and its surrounding tissues.

Side Effects

The local anesthetic administered during the RFA procedure should prevent any immediate pain. Side effects following the procedure are usually limited. There might be swelling or bruising at the site the needle was inserted. It takes a few days for the affected muscles to heal.

As with any procedure involving a needle, there is also a risk of bleeding or infection at the insertion site, but the area is cleaned beforehand, so these side effects are rare.

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