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New Study Helps Define the Role of Radiofrequency for Spine Pain

Heat can be used to treat chronic low back pain (LBP). But it's not in the form of a hot pack or hot tub. Electrical signals are used to heat the nerve tissues enough to damage some or all of the nerve fibers. The goal is to block pain messages traveling from the painful area to the brain. This form of treatment is called radiofrequency (RF).

Lately there's been some question about the use of RF for LBP. Some studies report short- term pain relief only lasting four weeks. Other studies show better results with pain relief for years afterward. Researchers in Israel studied the results of RF in 122 patients with back pain located anywhere in the spine from the neck down to the low back.

RF was applied to the spinal nerves according to the location of the pain. An instrument with a heat probe on the end was inserted under local anesthesia. The doctor used fluoroscopic X-rays to guide the probe. The nerve tissue was heated up to 175 degrees for 60 to 90 seconds.

Patients were followed for one year after the treatment. Four weeks later, three-fourths of all patients had a big improvement in their pain. They still had the same good results three months later. By six months, two-thirds of the patients still reported relief of pain. They continued to have good pain control at the end of one year.

The authors conclude that RF doesn't seem to work better in one area than another. All levels of back pain (neck, midback, or low back) were affected equally. The results of this study suggest RF is safe for use, but may only give relief to some patients. It doesn't work for everyone. They advise using it for patients who have not been helped by other treatments such as drugs, rest, and exercise.


Y. Pevsner, et al. The Role of Radiofrequency in the Treatment of Mechanical Pain of Spinal Origin. In European Spine Journal. December 2003. Vol. 12. No. 6. Pp. 602-605.

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