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Radio Waves Knock Out Knee Pain

PITTSBURGH – Doctors have used radiofrequency ablation (RFA) to reduce neck and back pain for years. An electrical current from a radio wave is used to heat up a small area of the nerve where the pain starts. Now, that same technique is providing long-term relief for patients with severe knee pain.

Shelly Werner is back in the saddle of her exercise bike. The long-time fitness instructor was sidelined for months with intense knee pain.

"I can't even squat down to like tie my shoe," Werner told Ivanhoe.

An autoimmune disease caused her joints to deteriorate. At age 49, Werner wanted to wait as long as possible to replace her knees.

"Lots of patients depend upon a huge dose of pain medicine, or patients just suffer and their quality of life is really compromised," Zongfu Chen, MD, Anesthesiologist and Pain Management Specialist, University of Pittsburg Medical Center, told Ivanhoe.  

When medication and other therapies don't work, Dr. Chen uses a technique designed to relieve knee pain for up to a year. Radio waves generate heat at the tip of a surgical tool.

"Basically the heat will shock and desensitize the nerve we targeted," Dr. Chen explained.

The radiofrequency is directed at three of five branches of nerves that lead to the knee, relieving pain almost immediately. Patients go home that day.

Werner was thrilled to have something that finally worked.

"I actually didn't think I had any options beside injection," she explained.

Now, she's back on her feet and ready to help others stay fit.

Dr. Chen says patients may feel pain again when the nerves begin to regenerate. Unlike other treatments the radio frequency ablation process can be repeated.