Frontiers in Spine Treatments: Radiofrequency Techniques for Sciatica
A Radiating Problem
One of the biggest challenges faced by the medical community involves taking on low back pain, especially in cases of sciatica. Often arising from herniated or slipped disc in the lower back, this condition is tough because endemic pain and numbness radiates out to lower limbs. And when more conservative treatments don’t work out, surgery is often indicated.
Despite how effective surgeries are for this condition, they’re not without drawbacks and dangers. As with any such procedure complications can occur and recovery can be a long, involved process. This is why it’s with some excitement that a team of researchers, presenting at the recent annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), reported positive results for a new method of treating sciatica: image-guided pulsed radiofrequency. 
Does this open the door for another minimally-invasive approach to this health problem? Let’s take a closer look.
A Novel Approach to Herniation
In most cases of sciatica, the core of the problem is herniated disc: when the cartilage that cushions vertebrae slides out of position or is impinged, causing pain in surrounding nerves. According to lead researcher, Dr. Alessandro Napoli of the Sapienza University of Rome, in Italy, when this nerve root is in pain, “[t]he body reacts with muscle constriction, which decreases the distance between vertebrae, and a vicious cycle is created.”  In the worst cases, pain and inflammation essentially egg each other on.
So what’s special about Dr. Napoli and his team’s proposed image-guided radiofrequency approach? The main idea is to deliver what are described as “gentle currents of electricity” to the problematic nerve root. Rather than employing physical means to resolve the disc (by removing it, for instance), the currents themselves help resolve the issue.  While injection and the use of a catheter are part of the process, it’s much more easily handled and tolerated than other surgical options. Through it all, work is guided by CT imaging of the area, so doctors know exactly what to look out for.
Looking at evidence from 80 patients who had chronic sciatica symptoms for three or more months and who’d found little success with more conventional means of treatment, the team were astounded by what they saw. “The results have been extraordinary,” says Dr. Napoli, “Patients have been relieved of pain and resumed their normal activities within a day.” Out of their research population, a robust 81 percent had no pain even a year of having just a single 10-minute session. 
In a direct manner, radiofrequency techniques for sciatica pain found their utility. As Dr. Napoli put it, “[f]ollowing this treatment, inflammation and pain go away. With relaxation of the muscles, the distance between the vertebrae returns.”  This represents a physiological improvement and helps ensure that sciatica symptoms don’t return. Furthermore, no complications were reported, making this method potentially much safer than traditional surgical options. The hope is that surgery, itself, can be avoided altogether.
Brighter Days Ahead
It may be a while yet before radiofrequency approaches to spine pain are a standard of practice; any medical procedure needs to be confirmed as effective and safe—both in research and by regulatory organizations like the FDA—before it can be used. That said, the work uncovers another minimally-invasive approach to sciatica, one that may well prove to provide excellent outcomes for patients down the line.
There’s little like the pain and discomfort caused by problems in the lower spine; it can cloud your days and severely impact quality of life. The good news, though, is that not only will research continue and approaches improve, but effective treatments already exist. Spine surgery today is just not what it was 10 or 20 years ago. And, as an increasing number of patients can attest, it works better than ever.
If you suffer from sciatica or any other painful and debilitating condition of the spine, the team at North American Spine can help. The experts here utilize the latest and best in minimally-invasive techniques to ensure positive outcomes for their patients. Learn more about what they do by calling (877) 474-2225 today!
- “Minimally Invasive Treatment Provides Relief From Back Pain”. 2018. Sciencedaily. Accessed September 24 2018. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171129090431.htm.