Most people can attest that the human body is far from perfect. Despite centuries of medical progress, there are common conditions and occurrences that we do not fully understand. These include uterine fibroids, benign tumors, and random, inexplicable nerve pain. Many people turn to ablation therapy to combat these conditions, but they may not fully understand what it is or how it works. “What is ablation therapy?” is a question that many individuals have, and it is essential to have a comprehensive understanding of the procedure to make informed decisions about one’s health.
There are many cases where a patient may describe pain without a clear cause or where it takes weeks, if not months, of diagnostic work to identify the real culprit. Sometimes, it’s an incredibly rare condition. And sometimes, it’s something as benign as random growth.
Sometimes, to heal, you must destroy. Medicine is no different. There are cases when the best way to treat a patient’s condition is to remove tissue their body has “naturally” put there, significantly if it’s interfering with essential physical functions or causing symptoms such as pain. This is where, in some cases, ablation therapy comes into play.
What Does Ablation Therapy Mean?
To ablate is to destroy. In a way, ablation therapy is a clinical way of describing the targeted elimination of tissue, usually through extreme heat (such as a laser) or extreme cold (through a chemical process).
In both cases, a medical professional will target a specific area and utilize an ablative method to destroy and remove the offending tissue.
If ablation therapy is applied inside the body, imaging technology guides a needle or electrode to its destination, often with a special contrast dye.
When Is Ablation Therapy Used?
Ablation therapy is most often used in cases where benign growths (i.e., non-cancerous tumors) may be physically impinging or pressing on a person’s nerves, organs, or blood vessels, causing visceral pain, neuropathic pain, or circulatory issues. Ablation therapy is often recommended to treat uterine fibroids or heart defects that cause arrhythmia.
Other common reasons to apply ablation therapy include cosmetic reasons, such as tattoo removal (which targets the cells under the endodermis that have been “colored” with tattoo dyes), skin whitening, or wart removal.
Some specific examples of ablation therapy include:
- Cardiac ablation
- Uterine ablation
- Surgical ablation
- Surgical-catheter ablation
- Ethanol ablation
- Thermal ablation
- Chemical ablation
- Radiofrequency ablation
- Microwave ablation
- And more
Can Ablation Therapy Be Used for Nerve Pain?
Ablation can be achieved in many ways. However, when targeting specific tissue – such as a nerve ending, which is usually within the body – one of the many challenges for successfully targeted ablation is finding a way to destroy a highly specific area of tissue without damaging surrounding tissues.
One of the methods doctors use to solve this particular problem is radiofrequency ablation.
While microwaves are used in certain forms of tissue ablation, radiofrequency ablation works differently.
Instead, a current is sent to a conductive point at the tip of a specialized electrode, inserted into the body at a specific frequency. This allows heat to be applied to a single point in the body for a remarkably very short period, enough to destroy targeted cells without causing damage to the rest of the body. In other words, this is a unique form of heat-based ablation, utilizing electricity internally rather than a laser for external applications.
The reason this is called a “radiofrequency ablation” is because the heat is being generated by an alternating current (AC) fluctuating within a medium frequency (also known as a radio frequency) between 350 and 500 kHz.
And yes, there is a good reason for this particular range. Radio frequencies are used because this range does not provide enough current to stimulate the surrounding nerves or tissue, meaning you do not get an electric shock. As such, there is no danger of an adverse effect caused by introducing electricity into the body.
Radiofrequency ablation is not just helpful in treating nerve damage. In addition to helping target highly specific points in the body, such as an abnormal growth or damaged nerve ending along the spine, radiofrequency ablation is often used to treat tumors inside an organ, such as the lung, liver, or even bone. It is also used for heart conditions, skin lesions, varicose veins, and to treat sleep apnea caused by obstructive tissue.
How Long Does Recovery Take?
All forms of ablation therapy are ultimately minimally invasive procedures. While it is a procedure that requires an outpatient visit – imaging machines and various specialized medical tools are needed to perform different types of ablation therapy – most of the time, patients remain awake and under the effects of local anesthesia and will be free to go home the very same day.
Depending on where the ablation was applied, a patient may be safe to drive. However, if the patient’s ablation therapy was applied inside the body, they should be driven home – and must refrain from strenuous activity for at least 24 hours.
While side effects and complications are rare, they do occur, and doctors will explain what patients should look out for. If a patient experiences severe or recurring pain after ablation therapy, swelling, or sudden bruising, they should call immediately. Bleeding and infection – usually on the needle insertion site – are uncommon.
If radiofrequency ablation is used to treat nerve pain, patients should know that there is a risk the procedure doesn’t fully address the origin of the pain.
Your doctor might first recommend a different treatment – such as a localized nerve block – to ascertain whether destroying the nerve will result in an improvement, to begin with. If the nerve block wears off and the pain continues to impact a patient’s quality of life severely, nerve ablation may be on the table.
Ablation therapy may be used with other treatment methods to help reduce nerve pain and improve quality of life. However, in addition to permanently destroying the affected nerve, nerve ablation therapy may only provide limited or temporary, albeit long-term, pain relief in most cases. Peripheral nerves – such as those in your back and limbs – will heal with time, at which point the pain might return.