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Learning About Nerve Ablation for Chronic Pain

The nervous system, showing the location of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves

What is it?

Nerve ablation is a procedure that destroys nerves in an area of pain. Destroying nerves helps reduce or stop pain signals. This can help relieve long-term (chronic) pain. Ablation may be used for chronic low back pain, neck pain, and pain in some other areas of the body.

Why is it used?

Ablation may be used when other methods of pain control haven't helped. It can work well for some types of pain.

How is a nerve block used before ablation?

Before the nerve ablation procedure, you will have a test that uses a nerve block. The nerve block tells the doctor if the ablation will relieve your pain. This test numbs specific nerves to help your doctor find the nerves that are causing your pain. Guided by X-rays or ultrasound, the doctor injects a drug on or near the nerve. The drug relieves pain by stopping the nerve from carrying pain signals for a short time. If the nerve block relieves your pain, the ablation may work for you.

How long does nerve ablation take?

The procedure usually takes an hour or less. But it may take longer. How long it takes will depend on where and how many nerves need to be removed or destroyed.

How is nerve ablation done?

Nerve ablation may be done using heat, cold, or chemicals. You'll be awake for the procedure so you can give feedback to your doctor. You'll get a local anesthetic to numb the area. And you'll get medicine to help you relax.

During the procedure, your doctor may use X-rays or ultrasound to see where to put the hollow needle that will be used. Your doctor will place the needle under your skin and destroy the nerve tissue. You may feel buzzing or tingling.

How well does it work?

The amount of pain relief from ablation, and how long the relief lasts, varies by the cause of your pain and its location. It may not stop the pain for good. The destroyed nerve may grow back. If it does, the pain may come back. But you can have the procedure again if you need to.

Nerve ablation doesn't work for everyone.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

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