August 9

Radiofrequency Ablation vs Steroid Injections: What’s the Difference?

More than 20% of adults living in the United States struggle with chronic pain. You aren't alone, whether you're struggling with back pain, headaches, or other pain.

Luckily, treatments for chronic pain are advancing. Two of the most popular treatments you may have heard of are radiofrequency ablation vs steroid injection.

As you're thinking about treating your chronic pain, you should consider each of these treatments. Keep reading to learn about each of them and figure out which one's right for you.

What Is Radiofrequency Ablation?

Radiofrequency ablation, also known as radiofrequency neurotomy, is a procedure that uses radio waves to heat up damaged nerve tissue. The heat destroys the nerves in the targeted area to prevent them from sending pain signals to your brain.

Physicians often use this procedure to treat chronic pain, especially in the low back, neck, and joints. However, the treatment can also help with improving musculoskeletal function and reducing the amount of pain medication a patient needs. The procedure may delay or avoid surgery for some patients.

There are many conditions that radiofrequency ablation can treat:

  • Chronic pain, including that which comes with arthritis
  • Cancer pain
  • Facial pain, including that which comes with trigeminal neuralgia
  • Peripheral nerve pain
  • Heart rhythm problems, including arrhythmias
  • Tumors

During the procedure, a physician will insert a small, hollow needle into the nerve they want to target. Then, radio waves begin to flow from an electrode that's at the top of the needle. The waves go through the needle into the targeted nerves.

Nearby nerves will not get damaged as the procedure is precise.

What Is Cervical Radiofrequency Ablation?

Cervical radiofrequency ablation is a common kind of radiofrequency ablation that treats neck, shoulder, and upper back pain. You may hear some physicians refer to the procedure as cervical facet thermal coagulation or rhizotomy.

Like traditional radiofrequency ablation, cervical radiofrequency ablation uses radio waves to heat up and disrupt nerve cells. The only difference you may see is the location.

The cervical procedure focuses on areas from the head to the shoulder blades. The exact target will depend on where your pain is.

Who Is a Candidate for Radiofrequency Ablation?

Radiofrequency ablation is a common procedure. You may be a candidate for it if you have either of the following:

  • Chronic pain that has not responded to other kinds of treatments, including pain medication and physical therapy
  • Pain relief with nerve block injections as this tells us that your pain is nerve-related

You should not get this procedure done if you're pregnant, have an infection, or have a bleeding disorder.

If you're interested in radiofrequency ablation treatment, make an appointment with your physician. They can help you figure out what kind of treatment is right for you.

Although, it's likely that they'll have to refer you to a physician who has the training necessary to perform the procedure. If you're interested in your options, search "radiofrequency ablation doctors near me."

doctor massaging pateint back


What Happens During Radiofrequency Ablation?

First, you should talk to your healthcare provider about any specific instructions you may need to follow before getting the procedure done. For example, you may need to stop taking certain medications a few days before the procedure.

Your provider may also get imaging done of your affected areas to get an idea of your current condition. This can help them provide a more precise procedure later.

Also, your provider will perform a test called a diagnostic block. This will confirm where your pain is coming from and how bad the pain is. It will also help the provider see if a radiofrequency ablation would be beneficial for you.

If you have the procedure done, you'll start by lying on your stomach on an x-ray table. During the procedure, your healthcare provider will watch your condition using special monitors. 

You'll be awake during the procedure so that you can communicate with the provider. However, you can request medications to help you relax if you're anxious about being awake. You'll also receive a local anesthetic around the area where they're placing the needle.

Using fluoroscopy, the physician will insert the needle and determine whether the needle is in the right place. Then, the local anesthetic goes in, followed by the radio waves that heat the nerves. 

The procedure can last anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours depending on your personal needs.

After the procedure, you should have someone else drive you home. You shouldn't do anything strenuous for 24 hours. You can return to normal activities within 24-48 hours.

You may experience some soreness or pain at the site of the injection. You may take pain medication for this or use an ice pack. Your provider may also recommend physical therapy.

What Is the Radiofrequency Ablation Cost?

Radiofrequency ablation procedures can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on where you're getting your treatment done.

If you have health insurance, you should ask whether your policy will help cover part or all of the procedure. 

Graphic of a needle administering a epidural steroid injection

What Is a Steroid Injection?

Epidural corticosteroid injections allow physicians to deliver pain medication to the body quickly. During the procedure, a physician will insert a needle into the epidural area. This is a fat-filled part of the body that covers the spinal cord.

Often, patients receive these shots to get quick pain relief from inflamed spinal nerves. Here are some common conditions corticosteroid injections may treat:

  • Herniated disks
  • Joint cysts
  • Bone spurs
  • Slipped vertebrae
  • Thickening spinal ligaments

The medication the patient receives reduces inflammation and opens up the nerve passageway in the spine. 

What Happens During a Steroid Injection?

An epidural steroid injection is an outpatient procedure in most cases. Before receiving the shot, you'll likely change into a hospital gown to make the injection easier.

You'll also receive a local anesthetic or a mild sedative to make you comfortable during the procedure.

If you have a preexisting condition, you should speak with your physician. You may need to adjust your medication schedule or consider another kind of treatment.

Once you're ready for the procedure, your healthcare provider will use an x-ray machine to help guide the needle as they inject the medication. They want to ensure the needle is in the right location before delivering the medication.

They may inject contrast dye into the site to measure the location.

Once the physician has found the right place, they'll inject the steroid medication. Often, they inject pain-relief medication or anesthetic to reduce discomfort.

After the procedure, you're cleared to go home. You may need to take the day of the procedure off. But, you can likely begin your daily activities again the day after the procedure.

Within one to three days, you should begin to feel the medication working. However, some patients can take up to a week to feel relief.

If you don't experience any relief within a week of the procedure, you should talk with your healthcare provider. This could be a sign that the pain is coming from another location.

Radiofrequency Ablation vs Steroid Injection: Which One's Right for You?

If you're suffering from chronic pain, it's time to decide which treatment is best for you: radiofrequency ablation or steroid injection.

Steroid injections provide relief within 24-48 hours, but they don't guarantee long-lasting results. On the other hand, radiofrequency ablation may take the same amount of time to work on but last for months at a time. This procedure also treats larger areas than standard injections.

Most commonly, physicians prescribe steroid injections for arthritic joint pain, while they prescribe radiofrequency ablation for nerve pain in the spine and/or neck. However, this isn't the only way to treat pain.

The best way to determine which treatment is right for you is by seeing an expert. An experienced healthcare provider can help you figure out what the best treatment for you is.

They'll take multiple factors into account, including your symptoms, the location of your pain, your pain level, your quality of life, and your reactions to past treatments. They may also conduct imaging studies of the areas you're complaining about.

With all of these factors in mind, an expert can help you make the best choice for your chronic pain. They'll speak with you about what your expectations are from the procedure and help you choose the best procedure for you. And, they can help you develop a long-term treatment plan past the initial procedure you both choose.

Get the Right Treatment for You

In the battle of radiofrequency ablation vs steroid injection, you should talk to a healthcare provider. If you're looking for a steroid injection or radiofrequency nerve ablation in Maryland, you should consider Pain & Spine Specialists.

Our team at Pain & Spinal Specialists has experience with both procedures. We've got some of the best steroid injection and radiofrequency nerve ablation doctors in Maryland.

To learn more about which procedure is best for you, request an appointment with our experts. When it comes to steroid injections and nerve ablation in Maryland, we can help you choose the best path for your chronic pain. 

We also have locations in Virginia and Pennsylvania.


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Radiofrequency Ablation


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