Background: Chronic pain in the cervical zygapohyseal joints is a common problem after whiplash injury, but treatment is difficult. Percutaneous radiofrequency neurotomy can relieve the pain by denaturing the nerves innervating the painful joint, but the efficacy of this treatment has not been established.
Methods: In a randomized, double-blind trial, we compared percutaneous radio-frequency neurotomy in which multiple lesions were made and the temperature of the electrode making the lesions was raised to 80 degrees C with a control treatment using an identical procedure except that the radio-frequency current was not turned on. We studied 24 patients (9 men and 15 women; mean age, 43 years) who had pain in one or more cervical zygapophyseal joints after an automobile accident (median duration of pain, 34 months). The source of their pain had been identified with the use of double-blind, placebo-controlled local anesthesia. Twelve patients received each treatment. The patients were followed by telephone interviews and clinic visits until they reported that their pain had returned to 50 percent of the preoperative level.
Results: The median time that elapsed before the pain returned to at least 50 percent of the preoperative level was 263 days in the active-treatment group and 8 days in the control group (P=0.04). At 27 weeks, seven patients in the active-treatment group and one patient in the control group were free of pain. Five patients in the active-treatment group had numbness in the territory of the treated nerves, but none considered it troubling.
Conclusions: In patients with chronic cervical zygapophyseal-joint pain confirmed with double-blind, placebo-controlled local anesthesia, percutaneous radio-frequency neurotomy with multiple lesions of target nerves can provide lasting relief.