Radiofrequency ablation for chronic arthritis-related back pain

Radiofrequency ablation, where heat energy destroys or stuns the nerves of a painful joint, is a developing therapy for chronic arthritis-related back pain.

In the right situation, this approach may be welcome -- though usually not permanent -- relief, according to the October issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter.

The best candidates for this procedure are those who have arthritis that's primarily confined to the spinal area, and possibly the upper buttock region. In an outpatient procedure, doctors apply radiofrequency energy either continuously for one to two minutes to destroy the pain-causing nerve tissue; or in pulses to stun the nerves.

The majority of people who opt for continuous radiofrequency treatment experience a greater than 50 percent pain reduction. The relief lasts an average of six to nine months. It's not clear why pain often returns, but doctors suspect that the nerves reconnect over time. The procedure can be repeated. However, patients may experience diminishing benefits with repeated treatments.

Pulsed radiofrequency may be as effective in pain relief as the continuous method, but the relief generally does not last as long. In theory, since the tissue is stunned and not destroyed, the pulsed treatment is safer and not expected to offer diminishing returns when repeated.

Definitive research has not accurately quantified success rates. But for patients with arthritis-related back pain that hasn't responded to other treatments, radiofrequency ablation is an option.

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