Back Pain Has A Real Foe:  Radio Frequency Energy

Back Pain Has A Real Foe: Radio Frequency Energy

By Staff

Back pain is a real problem.  According to the National Institutes of Health, 80% of adults will experience low back pain some time in their lives.  In fact, chronic low back pain affects nearly one-third of Americans and is the most common reason people go to the doctor’s office.

Laura Donlon, 48, of Monroe, Michigan had been dealing with low back pain for five years before she found out about a back pain study at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan.  The flight attendant says her pain was unbearable at times, especially when sitting.

Treatments for low back pain range from noninvasive to invasive: physical therapy, pain medications to major surgery, such as spinal fusion.  But Laura wanted something non-invasive, but effective.  She turned to a recently approved nerve ablating procedure with this hopes it might her relief.

“In 25 years of practicing orthopedics, this is the most important clinical study I’ve ever done,” said Jeffrey Fischgrund, M.D., chairman, Orthopedics, Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak and principal investigator of the Relievant SMART trial. “The system is proven to be safe and effective in clinical trials. It is much less invasive than typical surgical procedures to treat low back pain.”

Dr. Fischgrund helped design the research study, which included teams from the U.S. and Germany.  The study included 225 participants, with 150 receiving the ablation treatment and 75 receiving the placebo.

Donlon enrolled in the study and had the outpatient spine procedure, but did not know if she received the minimally invasive trial procedure or a placebo.  So, she had to guess based upon results.

“After the procedure, I went home and within 24 hours I could touch my toes,” said Donlon, a running enthusiast and marathon competitor. “That’s when I figured I had the study procedure.  Within 48 hours, I was back to work.” One year later, the research team confirmed what she suspected; she had undergone the nerve ablation treatment.

The treatment uses radio frequency energy to disable the targeted-nerve responsible for low back pain. Under local anesthesia with mild sedation, through a small opening in the patient’s back, an access tube is inserted into a specific bony structure of the spine, called a vertebral body.  Radio frequency energy is transmitted through the device, creating heat, which disables the nerve.  The procedure takes less than one hour.

“This is a new way to treat back pain. This type of treatment has never been done before,” said Dr. Fischgrund. “It’s revolutionary, compared to more traditional therapies; the odds of success are much greater.”

The nerve ablation procedure and technology was developed by Relievant Medsystems Inc., a California-based medical device company.

Nineteen months after Donlon’s treatment, she said, “Today, I have no back issues. I’m pain free. In fact, since my procedure, the pain has not recurred. I’m extremely grateful for the care and treatment I’ve received through my participation in the lower back pain study.”

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Authored by: Staff

There are 22 comments for this article
  1. gerard l becker at 5:04 pm

    nothing new under the sun-not a miracle!
    been done for years as minimally invasive procedure under anaesthesia
    works for some, not for others
    lots of stuff online-google radio frequency ablation or rhizotomy
    back pain warrior-DDD- L1-S1

  2. Mckenzie Chang at 7:48 am

    Does anyone have any information on how the FDA feels about this procedure?

    If someone could link to any relevant information that would be terrific

  3. Sheri Akopian at 6:53 pm

    I had this done 2 yrs ago. They burn the nerve endings. For me it worked for about 2 wks. The nerve endings always grow back. It is not permanent.

  4. Teresa at 11:26 am

    Having undergone RFA on both my left and right mid spine in November 2016, I’m currently able to find relief when taking pain meds for DDD that occurs in my C, T, and L levels. In the past I have tried everything from chiropractic, physical therapy, exercise, massage, increasing opioids, years of facet injections and cervical epidurals. I have spinal fusion of C4/5, C6/7 as well. After about three weeks of very uncomfortable flank pain, I woke up later than typical one morning with only a little twinge in my back. Although I stilll need pain medication to go through my average day, the meds effectively kill 90% of the pain. In the past I was only able to take off the edge of the pain by pain med usage.

    I am hopeful that this procedure is lasting, but I will not hesitate to repeat it should my pain return.

  5. Kristine Anderson at 9:59 am

    If you go to the FDA sites, NIH or government libraries, you can answer your question. You’ll see that it was approved but information is sketchy.

  6. Jean Price at 9:52 am

    Ablation of the nerves is a nice way of saying they are fried! Burned by the radio waves. It is one of those treatments that isn’t as invasive as some, but make no mistake…it is invasive! I had this procedure done back in the late 90s…and was actually worse for a while, and no better in the long run. I believe the doctor I saw was caught up in the all too common practice of thinking “his procedure” was a cure all for any type of back pain…and if it didn’t help, then YOU became the problem. A few years later, I learned from another doctor that anyone who has had a fusion and has METAL screws and rods SHOULD NEVER HAVE THIS DONE! As the radio waves heat up the hardware and can cause further damage, it stands to reason this could be a significant problem! At any rate, I won’t pursue this type of treatment again….and would caution any of those with metal components in the area of treatment to research any downside from doing this!

  7. Jen at 2:22 am

    Its amazing to see this procedure being effective. its a big deal recovering from what you were.

  8. Beth_C at 8:41 pm

    I had radio frequency ablation (RFA) done on my lower back several years ago (2009-2010 or so).The hope was to ablate 10 nerves that were thought to be causing my pain on my right side. There was a test done each time where lidocaine was injected then I had a few minutes to walk around to see if I could feel improvement, which was very difficult to judge. I was hopeful and went through with five procedures. Sadly, I didn’t notice any improvement and years later I am still being treated for chronic pain along with fibromyalgia and other issues. As I recall, the nerves would grow back and hopefully reroute so the pain wouldn’t come back, but there was no guarantee. I am glad to see that it worked for someone.

  9. gerard l becker at 4:33 pm

    In reading Linda’s story and following these other comments, I am perhaps fortunate in that I could not have radio frequency ablation (multilevel ddd) ! I am one of many on coumadin which made the procedure ( and any other type of spinal surgery ) unacceptable to both my pain physician and cardiologist because of a clotting disorder. What I thought might be a way out of the darkness could have led to an ever deeper descent into the abyss ( if that’s possible!! ) Thanks to you all for a verrrrrrrry profound, if saddening illumination! Back to square one since every traditional and holistic door has been slammed shut ! –A fellow pain warrior

  10. Darlene Mamola at 3:34 pm

    I have had this procedure since 2003; both sides lumbar spine every 6 months. So that’s 4 a year .
    First off it’s not new; it was done decades ago and the reason they know they need to ablate ( burn using radio frequency heat waves ) is that if the nerves were cut our bodies would grow new ones!..
    To say that this will take care of ones back problems is wrong. First let me say that info not know how I would cope if I did not have this RFA( radio frequency ablation performed). It is strictly for facet arthopathy . Basically arthritic facet joints. Some patient may benefit from a steroid injection in the facet joint and not need the ablation. This defends on the severity of deterioration . If the joint has non to very minimal cartilage covering it most likely you will need the RFA. What this does is shut town the pain signal . The facet joints have nerves , and when not covered in cartilages these nerves create horrible persistent nerve pain . This pain does NOT GO PAST YOUR KNEES, there are anterior and then medial branch nerves . It is the medial branch ones that cause this non relenting nerve pain .

    You could have this procedure it could be successful and you could still have other issues! The spine is complicated and often ones pain is multi factorial .

    One other thing I have been treated in NJ , then in FL wHere I live now.
    One should NEVER be sedated . Topical anesthetic is used . The patient needs to communicate with the dr , you should be aware , before the dr proceeds to burning the nerves at each segment there is a protocol that is followed to assure that only the facet nerve are treated. Even though fluoroscopy is used and your needle placement could be “textbook” everyone has different patterns and there is a chance that you have referred pain network . If the proper protocol is followed ( by sending nerve impulses , then motor pulses first) then & only then should the area be treated . Sedation is not a good choice .

  11. Linda Mouat at 8:27 am

    I’ve had ablation in my lumbar spine. My pain went off the charts with it. My nerves never really recovered. 6 months ago I had my second fusion 6 months ago. But due to a surgical mistake, my once left side only pain, is expanded to my right side. I’ll need another surgery. Anyway, if you’re considering ablation, do your homework. I already had Fibromyalgia, which affects the pain signals in the nerves. If I’d checked out the possible interaction of ablation with nerves that are sensitive to pain, I could have saved myself from making my pain worse.

    ALWAYS ask questions when a doc wants to perform any procedures or a medication you haven’t had before. Doctor’s are wonderful, mostly, but we must research, ask questions, need to advocate for ourselves.

  12. gerard l becker at 4:13 pm

    to make this seem the panacea for back pain suffers is absurd!!!! It is neither a miracle nor new ( neural ablation using radio frequency also called rhizotomy has been around for years! ! ! to take one anecdotal success and perpetrate it as equivalent to a full blown study is to insult the intellects of the legion of the desperate!
    In the end, it will sadly come down to your own will and determination except for the lucky few!

  13. Len at 1:08 pm

    My question, “Where is the FDA on this?” gets repeated “replies,” which are nothing but the article itself. I may be missing it, but I don’t see the FDA mentioned in the article.

  14. ChrisMD at 4:18 pm

    If it sounds too good to be true — it probably is. I’m so sick of reading articles that offer a quick fix and tell the story of a single patient who achieved miraculous results. I’m done with invasive procedures as I’ve suffered more harm and further chronic pain from those I’ve done. Unfortunately, there simply is no simple, one fits all solution for chronic pain. It’s important to do your due diligence before agreeing to have any procedure performed.

  15. Krissy at 3:10 pm

    This procedure is not new and has confusing information. This is just one piece of research that tells more, and the references are important. There are many more studies and data to look at.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4197759/

    I just had the diagnostic lumbar nerve block and have waited a year for it due to the need for funds if the test would have worked, but it didn’t. My doctor assured me that there was no possible risk of hitting something that could cause damage. I knew he was wrong, and the nurse went over the risks with me before the procedure in short form. She said the doctor would be talking with me about all of it before he did the procedure. He did not visit me and tell me anything. He had also used these statistics, that it works for 60 percent of people and may last up to a year. I was very hopeful that it would have been a successful test. It was the last possible thing for me to try.

    I’m not against it in any way, and I’m sure it may be a very good procedure for certain people. I do believe for me it was well worth the try and I was encouraged by the use of locating video technology. And maybe it is more safe than other injection-type or “probe” type procedures that are available, but I believe the article should have been more complete accurate dating of its origins, citing of the original developing doctors and scientists and more accurate and complete citing of past studies.

  16. Laura P. Schulman, M.D., M.A. at 12:46 pm

    I’m skeptical about any procedure that aims to relieve pain by means of destroying nerves. There really aren’t any “extra” body parts. Would you cut off your foot if it hurt all the time? You might think about it, but you probably would not amputate, because you know that you’ll cause yourself even worse problems, in most cases.

    In the same way, killing nerve fibers means losing the function that the nerve once performed. Losing the pain is great, but at what long-term consequences? (Hint: we don’t know yet.)

  17. Bob Schubring at 10:46 am

    This procedure has obvious potential to replace epidural steroid injections (ESIs) when nerve inflammation is causing pain, owing to the fact that it removes the cause of the pain, rather than masks it. It carries the same risks as ESI, in that a hole has to be made in the body, along the spine, but eliminates the need for repeated penetrations that ESIs require.

    There is also potential for abuse, just as ESIs are abused today.

    Destroying a nerve means permanently losing the use of that nerve for sensation and muscle control. Unless that loss is medically necessary, it’s harmful.

    This poses the same moral hazard to US patients, as does ESI.

    The typical US physician is opiophobic and confuses titration to effect, with “escalating doses of narcotics”. That same opiophobic physician was also brainwashed into ignoring the anxiolytic properties of the cannabinoids, which relieve the anxiety that induces the muscle tension that causes the majority of back pain to develop. Rather than treat pain with sufficient doses of medication to relieve it effectively, that physician rushes the patient into a surgical procedure.

    When there is an obvious mechanical defect in the spine, such as a bone spur or a piece of shrapnel pressing on a damaged nerve, the decision to kill the damaged nerve surgically is clearly the correct one. The damaged nerve is unlikely to heal because of the repeated damage it gets, from the spinal defect. The neurogenic pain stops, with the death of the damaged nerve. Because the spinal defect only damaged the now-dead nerve, there’s no way for the spinal defect to inflame additional nerves. If another spine defect develops (possible in osteoporosis patients), and pinches another nerve, the neurogenic pain in that nerve is treated as a recurrence of an illness (and hopefully the primary care physician is alerted to find out why this patient’s spine keeps fracturing into bone spurs, and begins treating the problem. It could be osteoporosis. It could be another bone disease. It could be a lot of things.)

    In cases where the primary problem is chronic muscle strain, pain and muscle tension require relief. Surgery to kill one nerve bundle will give temporary relief, until the chronic muscle tension causes the pain to focus elsewhere, and another nerve bundle is targeted for surgery. To the patient with chronic muscle strain, the pain is every bit as debilitating as the pain of a pinched nerve, but destroying nerves in the back, causes the pain to move elsewhere.

    A pain from a strained muscle will not go away by cutting nerves, until all the nerves reaching the strained muscle have been destroyed, at which point, the muscle becomes non-functional and the patient acquires a permanent disability limiting movement. That’s a permanent consequence of the surgery. It is necessary to determine whether chronic back pain results from a muscle strain or from a structural defect to the bones of the spine, before performing surgery. Effective communication between doctor and patient is essential to successful diagnosis and treatment.

  18. Jess at 9:29 am

    The truth about this procedure is that this can cause very bad side effects, it normally only lasts 3 months to a year, and is not a solution for everyone with back pain, only those with facit joint nerve impingement. This will not help ddd, inoperable disc hernations/buldges, connective tissue disorders, and allot more. If you have minor inconvenient lower back pain caused by facit joint inflammation that comes and goes then this may help, but it also may turn your minor inconvenient low back pain into sever disabaling pain and chances are if that happens not one doctor or hospital will treat you and you will be abandoned like almost all chronic pain patients are today. This procedure is the new cash cow for doctors. Beyond that we are on our own.

  19. Melanie gallo at 8:24 am

    Spinal fusion 3 years ago L3L4 have not had one day without pain in 5 years. Suffer everday.

    Recent EMG permanent L4 nerve damage

    Any advice? Please

  20. Judy at 6:20 am

    This article implies that this is a NEW procedure. It’s not all that new, I first heard about it 5 or 6 years ago. I did some research on it, and decided it’s not for me, at least not yet. There’s still too many questionable unknowns. The study in the article said some participants received a placebo. So an incision is made in the low back…..what kind of placebo is used? I’ve also seen several law suits filed against clinics & doctors performing this procedure. I’m not willing to take that chance. I’m glad it worked for the lady mentioned in the article.