A patient with primary facet pain, proven with either one or more blocks, may be a candidate for a facet rhizotomy using radiofrequency (RF). The patients selected for rhizotomy are those who are not surgical candidates and who have failed other conservative measure.
Radiofrequency ablation or lesioning is a term used when radio waves are used to produce heat to destroy tissue, usually a nerve. It has been used for several years with great success in patients who have abnormally fast heartbeats. More recently, it is being used to destroy tumors. It is also a non-surgical option to treat your spine pain.
Spine pain is the second most frequent pain complaint. It occurs in 65 to 80 percent of the population at one time or another, and can be disabling and frightening. Its costs to society are great.
For chronic cases of facet joint syndrome, where the pain relief from the injections is short lived a procedure called Radiofrequency Rhizotomy or facet neurotomy or simply RF can be performed. There are nerves that arise from the facet joints that carry the painful impulses to the brain. Heating these nerves by radiofrequency waves can block this transmission.
What is RF?
Facet neurotomy is a procedure which results in interruption of the nerve supply to a facet joint. A radio-frequency probe that heats the 2 small nerve branches to each facet joint accomplishes this interruption known as denervation. These nerves are called the medial branches.
How is RF done?
With the patient in a prone position [laying on your stomach] and under local anesthesia and fluoroscopic guidance, a radio-frequency needle is advanced to the base of the transverse processes. The needle is placed along the course of the medial branch. The needle is heated to 80° C for 90 seconds. At least 2 branches for each joint are treated in this same manner. Sometimes a cold radio frequency is done, especially for cervical facets, which does not involve heating, but does involve a special pulsed radio wave. Frequently, a small does of IV anesthesia medication is given for sedation. However, this medication is not intended to make you unconscious. You must be awake and responsive during the procedure.
How long does RF take?
The neurotomy takes 10 to 45 minutes, depending on the number of levels to be done. The patient is then recovered in the observation area for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
What will happen after the procedure?
Immediately after the procedure, you will get up and walk and try to imitate something that would normally bring about your usual pain. You will then report the percentage of pain relief and record the relief you experience during the next week.
You should not drive the day of the procedure. Your legs may feel weak or numb for a few hours.
General Pre/Post Instructions
Risks of RF?
Increased localized back pain and/or leg pain can be expected from several days to several weeks and rarely several months. Destabilization of the facet joint is a risk and post injection training to strengthen the extensor muscles can prevent this possibility. There is a rare risk of permanent injury to nerve tissue with weakness or loss of sensation. There is also a rare risk of complication from anesthesia used to make you feel more comfortable during the procedure.
As with any procedure, there is a risk of significant complications. The most common side effects from the RF include (but are not limited to):
Expected Outcome of RF?
Following the neurotomy, there is a 60 to 80% chance of pain relief. This typically last for 3 months to 2 years. The nerve eventually grows back and the procedure can be repeated. While the patient is experiencing pain relief, vigorous physical therapy is necessary to try and strengthen the involved facet joint(s). You should expect no pain relief for the first 72 hours, with peak relief occurring 6 weeks later.