Electric impulses can relieve the pain of the “slipped” disc


By Maureen Salamon

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 29, 2017 (HealthDay News) – A new treatment that targets electrical pulses in the irritated nerves around the spinal cord appears to be effective in relieving pain chronic low back and sciatica, suggests a preliminary study.

The minimally invasive procedure, called image-guided pulsed radiofrequency, relieved persistent pain in 80 percent of 10 patients after a 10-minute treatment. Ninety percent could avoid surgery.

"Given the very low risk profile of this technique, patients with herniated discs and nerve root compression symptoms may experience a safe and rapid recovery, returning to normal activities within a few days," the study said. author Dr. Alessandro Napoli. He is an interventional radiologist at the University of Sapienza, in Rome, Italy.

"In fact," he added, "one of the most radical advantages of this technology is that we can perform it in a surgical day environment, without anesthesia, and [patients] go home the same day."

Napoli's study is scheduled for presentation Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, in Chicago. Studies presented at scientific conferences have not generally been peer-reviewed or published, and the results are considered preliminary.

Approximately 8 out of 10 people suffer from back pain at some point in their lives, according to study documents. This pain may be due to a herniated disc in the lower part of the spine. Sciatica is radiating pain in the legs caused by a pinched nerve in the lower part of the spine, which can also be due to a herniated disc.

Also called a slipped or broken disc, a herniated disc occurs when the spongy material inside a spinal disc contracts through its hard outer layer due to aging or injury. This material can press on the surrounding nerves, causing pain and numbness or tingling in the legs, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS).

Conservative and non-surgical approaches generally relieve the symptoms of a herniated disc over time, according to the AAOS. These treatments include rest, mild exercise, badgesics, anti-inflammatory medications, cold or hot packs, and physical therapy.

However, about 20 percent of those with acute low back pain do not find relief through these measures. That leads some to decide on surgery to remove the disc material by pressing on their spinal nerves. For these people, Napoli said, image-guided pulsed radiofrequency therapy may become a viable option if larger studies reinforce their findings.


The Napoli investigation included 80 people who had experienced at least three months of low back pain from a herniated disc that had not responded to conservative treatments.

Image-guided pulsed radiofrequency therapy uses computed tomography (CT) to help doctors insert a needle into the location of the herniated disc and surrounding nerves. A probe inserted through the tip of the needle delivers pulsed radiofrequency energy to the area for a period of 10 minutes, resolving the hernia without touching the disc, explained Napoli.

More than 80 percent of the 80 study participants had no pain year after a single treatment. Six people needed a second treatment session.

Pulsatile radiofrequency has been widely used in the treatment of pain for other types of chronic pain, Napoli said.

He said the treatment works by "eliminating the process of inflammation" in the nerves surrounding the herniated disc, hampering painful muscle contractions. "The goal was to interrupt this cycle and give the body the opportunity to restore a natural healing," he added.

Dr. Scott Roberts, a physiatrist at Christiana Care Health System in Wilmington, Delaware, said the new findings showed "an impressive decrease in pain and an improvement in function." However, he noted that the research did not include a control group to compare with people who did not receive the treatment.

"Without a control group, we do not know how much of the improvement we are seeing would have happened anyway," Roberts said. "I was very encouraged [the study] because its results are significant, but it is far from conclusive without a control group."

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SOURCES: Alessandro Napoli, MD, Ph.D., interventional radiologist, Sapienza University, Rome, Italy; Scott Roberts, M.D., Physiatrist, Christiana Care Health System, Wilmington, Del .; presentation, November 29, 2017, annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, Chicago

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