Ablation offers relief to chronic pain sufferers
Chronic pain sufferers often take years to find an effective treatment -- if they find one at all. But there is an underutilized form of pain relief that may help patients with spinal pain for whom nothing else has worked.
It's called radiofrequency ablation, and it essentially involves burning off the nerves that are causing the pain. While the treatment doesn't repair the nerve damage, it temporarily stops the brain from hearing the body's cries of pain.
Car accident survivor Coleen Kelly has undergone the procedure four times. Before her treatment, every step she took was filled with agony, the legacy of a car crash three decades ago that broke her pelvis on both sides, cracked her spine, and left her with broken ribs and collar bone.
In 1995, she was in another car accident, which only aggravated her symptoms further.
Despite countless treatments and numerous pain medications over many years, she was still suffering through constant pain.
But she finally found relief when she tried the radiofrequency ablation technique. Doctors identified the nerves in her neck responsible for most of the pain signals to her brain. They then inserted long needles that delivered heat to the nerves.
"All we are doing is interrupting the electric wires; we are not treating the cause of the pain at all," explains Dr. Gil Faclier, an anesthetist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.
"We're interrupting the messages of pain that go from the spine to the brain that is interpreted by the patient as pain."
With the nerves out of commission, many patients report that their pain decreases. Studies show up to 70 per cent of patients who undergo the procedure can cut back on their pain medications. Many patients can even return to work.
"The advantage with this is that it is not an operation; it is an outpatient procedure. The recovery period is anywhere from one day to four weeks," Faclier says.
The only downside to the procedure is that it usually has to be repeated about once a year, after the nerves re-grow. But for patients like Colleen Kelly, that's fine.
"I have been dealing with pain for 33 years I will take a year reprieve from pain anytime," says Kelly who calls the procedure, "one of the greatest blessings in my life."
While the treatment can offer real relief to patients, many family doctors don't know about it, says the Canadian Pain Society's Dr. Mary Lynch, a professor of Anesthesia and Pharmacology at Dalhousie University.
"This is a very good treatment for a very select group of patients and yes, it is probably underutilized even for these select patients," she says.
Dr. Faclier would like to see more hospitals offering this procedure.
"There are huge numbers of patients that can be treated and at the moment there are not the facilities across the country to deal with these numbers," he says.
"If it were more widespread in the lay public, then the lay public would have a job to pressure the medical community to have more facilities to have this done."
With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip