Years ago when first entering into the world of medicine, I thought that if a study appeared in a leading scientific journal then it would have to have been a good scientific study. As an undergraduate and in my medical student years I was never really taught how to read a paper and analyze it for its quality. Over the years more articles stopped making sense, and as one would delve into the details, it often became clear that many studies that were published were just bad research.
Often if one knew something about the subject being studied, either the conclusions were obvious or they were not clearly defined such that the answer found may not really have a true correlation to the problem. Good medical studies are often very hard to perform. If you are not very careful, the answer will be junk, even if it is published in a good medical journal. Recently, this has occurred in a major medical journal.
Insurance Sponsored Studies
A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) was published with the finding that radiofrequency lesioning does not work in the lumbar region. Unfortunately, this again was a seriously flawed study and on top of everything from a research perspective, it was an insurance sponsored product. The pain societies across the world have been surprised and highly critical of the poor quality of the research and conclusions drawn in this paper.
If one has done their research, they would see that there are multiple excellent studies supporting the use of radiofrequency techniques for some specific uses. This technique has been around since the 1970’s and good equipment and understanding was established in the 1990’s. The technique is very successful for removing a nerve pathway for sensation feedback from facet joints. The science has been proven in detailed and has benefited thousands of pain sufferers. It is a common treatment for facet pain in both the neck and lumbar region and is highly successful when diagnostic blocks done first are indicative of pain relief.
This type of intervention has also been used for a number of other things including knee joint problems, sacro-iliac joint pain, and a variety of peripheral nerve problems and lumbar disc issues. All the other areas treated have had less success due to complex nerve locations. Lumping all radiofrequency treatments together and saying that they do not work is a true disservice to medicine and the patients. Further, since the JAMA is a highly regarded journal, the editors should have more closely scrutinized the study for its validity. Understanding the anatomy in the body also makes a huge difference; nerve location for most areas of the body can be highly variable from person to person and therefore it may be difficult to be successful in severing a nerve with limited ability to visualize its location.
Pain is a very complex sensation in the human body. The overall perception of the stimuli is based on the interpretation of signals in the brain. The brain may actually be receiving signals from multiple structures but interpreting them all as similar and from one location. Eliminating one piece of the signal may be sufficient to solve a pain problem. If the signals are coming from multiple locations, eliminating just one part of the signal may not change the brain’s perception of pain. The joints along the spine have very well defined sensory nerves and feedback; If the pain is from this structure it can be clearly determined and successfully treated. The discs and sacro-iliac joints have poorly defined sensory feedback, trying to eliminate the signals from these regions is still a matter of study. If the editor of JAMA used some critical thinking, the poor quality of the study would have been easily seen and the disservice of its publication could have been avoided.
Radiofrequency management of pain can be highly successful. It is definitely a science with some very technical variables that impact its success. To use this as a tool in pain management, understanding its science, capabilities, risks and benefits is necessary. It is well proven to work in certain situations. A good clinician can maximize radiofrequency effectiveness for a variety of problems but it does have limits. It is not experimental but it does have its inherent challenges in its ability to safely remove enough nerves to relieve pain. If you have pain, a good board certified pain physician can often help a patient find strategies that may lead to more successful management of your symptoms.
Thomas Cohn, MD
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