Non-Invasive Headache Relief

Written by Ann E. Butenas

We asked C. Lan Fotopoulos, M.D., a board-certified physiatrist with Kansas City Orthopedic Alliance in Leawood, Kansas, how this modality can be used for patients suffering from chronic pain related to certain types of headaches…

Q: Is radiofrequency ablation a potential solution for chronic headaches?

Radiofrequency ablation has been found to be a therapeutic treatment for certain types of headaches. A relatively new technique for pain control, radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is a minimally invasive procedure that uses heat to mitigate or stop the transmission of pain signals to the brain. When applied to nerve tissue, RFA can result in pain relief that perhaps other treatment approaches failed to provide. Among the primary indications for which RFA can be applied include neuropathic pain, prior spine surgeries, spinal arthritis, and whiplash injuries.

According to Dr. Fotopoulos, approximately 13% of all headaches are extracranial, which means they are caused by something outside of the head and brain. Of that, 80% emanate from the third occipital nerve. This type of headache is often the result of a whiplash injury. In fact, 38% of people with a whiplash injury will develop a third occipital nerve headache. Further, third occipital headaches affect 53% of individuals with headaches.

“The third occipital nerve is the main cause of extra cranial headache,” indicated Dr. Fotopoulos, who also stated the RFA procedure is intended for patients presenting with chronic pain. “Patients get pretty good results with this particular type of treatment.”

Dr. Fotopoulos emphasized, though, that RFA is not indicated for migraines. However, a third occipital headache can mimic a migraine as it will start at the neck and radiate up the back of skull and over the ear.

“Some people may sometimes feel it in their eye,” stated Dr. Fotopoulos.

Prior to implementing this procedure, Dr. Fotopoulos will conduct an initial test on the patient, performing a block to ensure there is a noted reduction in pain. From there, this out-patient procedure, which is essentially permanent, is done. As for the outcome, patients typically realize six to 18 months of relief from pain with RFA.

“As time progresses, the more we do this procedure, the longer the benefits last,” said Dr. Fotopoulos.

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