Chronic back pain can trap you in an unhealthy cycle. The pain can keep you from doing exercises or making other changes that could help you feel better.

Ironically, the pain doesn’t decrease with the lack of activity, and it may even get worse. This can lead people to do less and less. “In effect, you’re digging a hole that’s hard to get out of,” says Eric Mayer, MD, who specializes in treating back and neck pain.

The good news is that there are ways to break this pain cycle. If your pain is nerve-related, it’s possible to treat it with a special kind of heat — radiofrequency ablation — which can get you back on your feet.

This treatment uses heat to interrupt the pain signals from the nerve tissues in a small, targeted area of your back, explains Dr. Mayer.

A search for effective back pain treatments

Persistent back pain is one of the most commonly reported health complaints. And this is especially true as we get older. Finding a way to manage pain is challenging. Some treatments work for certain types of chronic back pain, but not for others.

When the pain is nerve-related (neuropathic) or caused by arthritis, traditional surgical treatments and pain medications are not always the most effective (or safest). That’s where radiofrequency ablation (RFA) comes in.

“In the late ’80s, two similar products came out to treat neuropathic pain,” Dr. Mayer says. “One was to use light in the form of a laser. The other, radiofrequency ablation, used radiofrequency waves, like a microwave.”

With RFA, he says, you can test the area to make sure you are treating the right nerve tissue. Using a laser didn’t offer that same precision, and laser treatment fell by the wayside.

Dr. Mayer explains what you need to know about RFA today. The goal is to break the cycle of pain so you can get back on the path to feeling better.

RFA: pros and cons

With RFA, most patients go home the day of the treatment.

You will stay awake during the procedure. Your treatment team will give you something to relax you, and then they will numb only a small area of your back.

The risk of infection or other complications is low, which makes the procedure safe for most people.

Afterwards, you may feel swelling at the treatment site or weakness in your legs. These symptoms are only temporary. You typically can get back to your normal daily activities after a full day of rest, Dr. Mayer says.

The treatments offer pain relief for between 9 and 24 months, he says.

While some see that as a benefit, others see it as a negative because the treatment isn’t a permanent fix. Eventually, you may need to repeat the treatment.

When to consider RFA

If you’re doing physical therapy but finding that it isn’t helping your nerve-related chronic back pain, your doctor may prescribe an RFA treatment.

Dr. Mayer emphasizes, however, that the right candidate is one who is willing to actively participate in his or her healthcare — to break the cycle of pain.

RFA is like “hitting reset” so the pain isn’t getting in the way of addressing the lifestyle and health changes you need to make. It doesn’t make you want to exercise or eat healthier, but it does remove the pain barrier that holds you back, he says.


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