Radiofrequency ablation is the process of using energy and heat to destroy or temporarily disable cells in the body. It is most often used for the relief of pain, but it can also be used to treat cancer, heart disease, varicose veins, and other disorders. The process is minimally invasive and requires only a short period of recovery.
Radiofrequency Ablation for Pain Relief
The ablation procedure is used to prevent the transmission of pain by the nerves. It is particularly useful to treat lower back pain, neck pain, and arthritic joints. Many patients have tried more conventional therapies, such as medication and physical therapy, before coming to radiofrequency ablation.
The procedure is done in an outpatient clinical setting and takes from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the specifics of your case. You will be lightly sedated and will be lying down. Your doctor will first make a very small incision to allow the insertion of the needles that will be used for the ablation. Some type of imaging, such as a type of X-ray called fluoroscopy, is done to guide the doctor in placing the needles in the right position.
Once the needles are in place, a small pulse of electricity is transmitted to the nerve that is the target of the ablation. This has two purposes: It helps ensure that the needles are in the right location, and it confirms that no motor neurons are being stimulated.
When everything checks out, the doctor will administer a pulse of energy that will heat the nervous tissue around the tip of the needle. This stuns the nerve and causes it to stop transmitting pain signals. Once the procedure is over, the needles are removed and you will be allowed to recover. You can return home the same day.
Most people have a very short recovery process from radiofrequency ablation. You may have muscle soreness that can be treated with cold packs, and there may be some mild swelling or bruising at the incision site. You will probably be able to return to work the next day.
The ablation procedure is not a permanent cure for pain. The nerve will eventually recover and regenerate and resume sending signals, resulting in a resumption of your pain. The duration of pain relief after ablation varies widely, but most people will enjoy three to 18 months of freedom from pain.
Radiofrequency Ablation for Heart Disease
Radiofrequency ablation can be used to treat various categories of heart rhythm disorders that are not responding well to medication. If you suffer from supraventricular tachycardia, atrial flutter, or atrial fibrillation, you may be a candidate for the procedure. The purpose of ablation in this case is to destroy the small area of heart tissue that is causing irregular beats. It is very successful and has a very low risk of complications.
When you have the ablation procedure you will be sedated, and you will have local anesthetic at the area of incision. The process is different from that used for pain relief, as the incision will not be over the heart but in the groin. A catheter is inserted into a vein in the groin area and maneuvered up through the vein to the heart. Electrodes are fed through the catheter until they are positioned at the trouble spot in the heart. A radiofrequency burst is sent through these wires, heating and destroying the clump of malfunctioning cells.
The entire procedure takes from two to four hours. Afterward, you will be allowed several hours for recovery, and then you can return home. You can resume most of your normal activities the next day, although you should take it easy for about three days.
Radiofrequency Ablation for Cancer
Treating cancerous tumors with radiofrequency ablation is a method of killing the tumors with heat. It is most effective for cancer of the liver, kidney, prostate, and bone. Ablation is often recommended when other options cannot be used, such as when a person has heart disease that makes surgery too risky.
The procedure involves inserting a needle through the skin into the cancerous tumor and heating it with high-frequency energy, killing the cancer cells. Recovery is somewhat dependent on the patient’s overall health, but the ablation process itself is not debilitating.