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How Electrothermal Catheter Therapy Works

Low back and leg pain is often because of damage to one or more of the disks between the vertebrae. Electrothermal therapy, also known as intradiscal electrothermal therapy, uses heat to change the structure of the tissue inside the disk. It doesn’t relieve pain right away. Pain is reduced as the disk heals. After healing, the disk may also be stronger and more stable than before.

Image showing the catheter being threaded through a needle into the disk.
The catheter is threaded through a needle into the disk.

Inside the disk

First, a needle is inserted into the disk. Then a special flexible wire (catheter) is threaded through the needle, so that it curves around the inside of the disk. When the catheter is in place, part of it is next to the damage in the disk.

Image of the catheter heating the disk.
The catheter heats the disk, causing changes in the disk material.

Heating the disk

Once the catheter is in place, it is heated gradually to a high temperature. The catheter is kept at that temperature for a few minutes. Then it is removed. The heat may deaden nerves in the disk, preventing these nerves from causing pain. The heat may also make the disk shrink. This may mean that the disk no longer presses on nerves. The heated tissue will slowly heal over the next few months and form scar tissue. This scar tissue may:

  • Plug any leak in the disk

  • Make the disk stronger

Risks and complications

The risks and complications of electrothermal catheter therapy include:

  • Bleeding

  • Spinal fluid leak

  • Infection

  • Nerve damage

  • Worsened pain after recovery

  • No improvement of pain

Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Moe, Jimmy, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2018
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