Radiofrequency ablation can be an effective treatment for neck and back pain, as well as for certain types of growths, like tumors.
Although radiofrequency ablation is minimally invasive, it’s normal to experience some pain and discomfort in the first few weeks after your procedure.
But worsening pain after radiofrequency ablation can indicate a complication, such as an infection.
Read on to learn more about what to expect after radiofrequency ablation and when to contact your doctor.
With radiofrequency ablation, your doctor will use imaging, like an ultrasound, to find the right place to insert a radiofrequency probe. This probe is then inserted into your body near the growth or nerves that are being targeted.
The probe sends radiofrequency waves that cause cells in the surrounding tissue to die. Your immune system removes these dead cells, which shrinks the growth or stops your nerves from sending pain signals.
Radiofrequency ablation is an outpatient procedure. It doesn’t require general anesthesia.
Specifically, radiofrequency ablation can be used for:
- benign and malignant tumors
- certain types of vein issues, such as chronic venous insufficiency
- thyroid nodules
- chronic back and neck pain
Most people experience some pain and discomfort after radiofrequency ablation. There may be swelling, numbness, or soreness where the needle was inserted, or it may feel like a sunburn.
Typical post-procedure pain should not be severe. In most cases, it will respond to over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen.
In most cases, your pain should go away within 1 to 2 weeks of having the procedure.
However, there are some reasons you might experience longer lasting pain or pain that worsens after radiofrequency ablation:
- If you had an ablation due to neck or back pain, it can take at least 3 weeks to feel the full pain-relief effects. In this case, continued high levels of pain would be expected. In addition, the procedure does not completely eliminate pain for many people.
- The level of pain you feel after your ablation may also depend on why you had the procedure. For example, radiofrequency ablation for Barrett’s esophagus can cause temporary severe chest pain.
- Recovery time can vary from person to person and also depends on the procedure’s purpose. For example, standard recovery time for radiofrequency ablation for neck pain is about
2 weeks, while recovery time for ablation for a liver tumor is about a week.
Serious side effects from radiofrequency ablation are rare but possible. While minor pain and discomfort (about the level of a bad sunburn) after the procedure are expected, severe pain is not normal.
Contact your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:
- Pain medication doesn’t seem to help ease the pain at all.
- Your pain hasn’t improved after 2 weeks.
- Your back or neck pain is worse than it was before the procedure.
There are some potentially serious complications that can cause increased pain after radiofrequency ablation. Let’s look at each of these causes in more detail.
Nerve or blood vessel damage
When the needle goes into your body, there’s a very small chance it can damage the surrounding nerves and blood vessels.
Be on the lookout for pain and tingling or numbness around the ablation site that lasts for more than a few weeks. This may indicate nerve or blood vessel damage.
Hyperesthesia is increased skin sensitivity at the injection site. If you develop this condition, you’ll feel severe pain when you lightly touch the injection site, or if your hand gets too hot or cold.
Infection can be a complication of any procedure, but it only occurs in less than 1 percent of radiofrequency ablations. Signs of an infection after the procedure include:
- redness and swelling around the injection site
- bleeding from the injection site
- trouble breathing
- pain around the injection site that doesn’t get any better with medication
Having pain following radiofrequency ablation doesn’t mean the procedure didn’t work. Radiofrequency ablation often reduces pain, but it may not take your pain away entirely.
If you have radiofrequency ablation for neck or back pain, your doctor will likely consider the procedure successful if you have at least a 50 percent reduction in pain. In fact, some doctors even use a pain reduction of 30 percent or two points on the pain scale as a baseline for success.
In addition, improvements to functionality and quality of life are as important as pain reduction. So, even if you still have some pain, your ablation may be considered successful if you are more active or mobile than you were before the procedure.
Radiofrequency ablation is not permanent. For most people with chronic pain, the effects will last about
Success rates of radiofrequency ablation
The success rates for specific types of radiofrequency ablation are as follows:
- Sacroiliac joint (lower back):
75 to 85 percent
- Facet joint (spine):
45 to 60 percent
- Liver tumor: 85 percent elimination of small liver tumors
If your ablation was successful but your symptoms return, you can get the procedure again. For most people, the repeated procedures will be as successful as the first.
Radiofrequency ablation is a common minimally invasive procedure that’s used to shrink tumors or other growths in the body. It’s also used to disable nerves that can cause some types of chronic pain, specifically back and neck pain.
Some discomfort following the procedure is expected, but your pain should not get significantly worse after radiofrequency ablation.
If you experience severe pain, your pain gets worse over time, or you have symptoms of an infection, it’s important to contact your doctor. They can help determine whether your pain is a normal part of healing or if you need further treatment.