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What is Radiofrequency Rhizotomy?

By Andy Josiah
Updated May 17, 2024
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Radiofrequency rhizotomy is a minimally invasive, injection procedure that involves using electromagnetic radiation to sever nerves of the spinal cord to improve mobility and reduce pain. It is one of the methods that fall under the rhizotomy or neurotomy umbrella, which concerns selecting the problematic spinal nerves that cause ailments of the nervous system. Examples of the neuromuscular problems that radiofrequency rhizotomy address include cerebral palsy, a class of diseases that denote a loss of physical coordination or movement; and spastic diplegia, which is characterized by involuntary convulsions of the muscles. The procedure, however, can be used for less drastic conditions such as severe back pain.

People who wish to have radiofrequency rhizotomy would need to see a radiologist. This specialized physician would have to determine if a patient is an ideal candidate for the procedure by relying on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to see the affected internal areas. In some places, another medical imaging technique called x-ray computed tomography or a CT scan may be used instead. Candidates must also reveal important personal medical information, including any known allergies, past ailments or medication they are currently taking.

The procedure consists of radio waves sent through a thin needle electrode for optimal precision. The needle is usually inserted adjacent to the affected area, with an x-ray camera called a fluoroscope hooked up to a TV monitor to visualize and determine its proper placement. An anesthetic is then applied to the nerve to numb it so that it becomes primed for the physician to apply the radio waves, which produces a heating sensation. This causes the nerve to turn into a lump-like structure called a lesion, robbing it of any function. Although patients are kept awake for the duration of the operation to give essential feedback, they receive enough medication to ensure that they are in a comfortable state.

Destroying the defective nerves causes the severance of the communication link between the spine and the brain. It could take up to 60 seconds to burn off a nerve during radiofrequency rhizotomy. Overall, the entire operation usually lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. Physicians recommend that patients avoid driving soon after the operation.

Although the risks of radiofrequency rhizotomy do not occur frequently, some recipients of the procedure may experience muscle soreness and bruises, or even destroyed nerves and blood vessels near the area of operation. Others may have increased pain for a few weeks. Improvement, though, should begin to happen three weeks after the procedure, and symptoms should simultaneously begin to dissipate.

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