Radiofrequency Nerve Ablation (RFA) FAQs
How Does RFA Work?
An RFA uses a radio wave produced by electric current to heat a small section of nerve tissue. This process stops the nerve’s ability to send pain signals to the brain. Generally, RFA is used for patients suffering from chronic neck or lower back pain.
The RFA procedure per se does not involve injections, although needles are inserted into the skin to deliver the radio waves. Patients also receive numbing injections to remain comfortable during the process.
How Is an RFA Performed?
Prior to an RFA, the you receive a nerve block to ensure that the nerves in question are indeed transmitting pain. Once it is plain the nerves are the culprit, the RFA is scheduled. You lie face down, and the affected area is cleansed and numbed.
Guided by a fluoroscope, the doctor finds the nerve or nerves and sends a light current to that spot. The heat creates a lesion, so the nerve(s) can no longer send pain signals.
What is the Difference Between an RFA and Radiofrequency Neurotomy?
There is no difference. The two terms are interchangeable.
How Long Does an RFA Take?
The RFA procedure takes between 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the treatment areas.
Does an RFA Hurt?
You may experience minor discomfort during an RFA. Most patients have some muscle soreness in the week following the procedure.
Regular application of ice packs should relieve soreness, as should the use of over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen. The pain is triggered by the nerves dying from the heat application. The affected nerves die within one to two weeks after the RFA.
How Long Will Pain Relief from an RFA Last?
Most patients experience pain relief lasting from six months to one year after RFA. Some patients are pain-free for much longer. Eventually, the nerve will regenerate, but that may take up to two years to occur.
Can I Have Another RFA Once the Nerves Regenerate?
Yes, the procedure may be repeated once the nerves regenerate and pain returns.
What Side Effects Are Associated With an RFA?
Besides muscle soreness, which is common, most patients will not experience side effects after RFA. Some patients may feel sunburn-like pain over the treated area for several days post-procedure. The area may also feel numb to the touch during this period. Rare side effects include bleeding, paralysis, nerve injury, infection or permanent numbness.
Are There Any Restrictions After an RFA?
You must have someone drive you home after the procedure. If possible, try to rest for a day or two after an RFA rather than go back to work or resume normal activities. Avoid taking a bath, going swimming or otherwise fully immersing in water for two days after the RFA.
You may take a shower the day after the procedure. Let your pain levels guide you on how much activity you pursue, but it is important not to overdo it. Complete recovery may take up to three weeks.
Since long-term pain may change the way patients use their bodies, it is advisable for some patients to visit a physical therapist for a personal exercise regimen to rebuild muscle strength and tone.