Barbara working out

News | 9 months ago

Life-Changing Injections Improve Barbara’s Neck Pain

For Barbara Sheridan, chronic neck pain was taking away her motivation and making daily activities difficult. Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute used an ablation procedure to improve her pain by 60%-70%.

Ever since she graduated from college, Barbara Sheridan has been driven by her career. She started out working in human resources for a commodities exchange at the World Trade Center in New York City, New York. Then she worked in human resources for mostly health care companies in several cities across the country. She even started her own company – a human resources benefits and payroll administration company –  which she grew from three to 100 employees. She and her partners sold the company in 2010, which allowed her to stay home and spend more time with her son, Matt.

In 2017, Barbara started having severe neck pain. The pain began in her neck and  traveled down through her left shoulder. In March of that same year, she was in a car accident that aggravated her neck pain. Certain movements, like bending and twisting while doing laundry or exercising, meant that she had to lie down and put ice on her neck for a few hours at the end of the day. Her condition progressed to the point that the pain occurred regardless of her activity level.

“It was really frustrating for me when the pain started since I was thinking of starting another company,” Barbara explains. “But when you’re in pain, you don’t have the energy to even think about doing something like that. My activity level dramatically decreased.”

That’s when Matt convinced her to see a musculoskeletal doctor for her pain.

“Matt’s very active and into promoting health and wellness,” she says. “He’s been very instrumental in pushing me to seek treatment.”

Barbara has been a patient of Atrium Health for nearly 30 years. Dr. Laura Seth, primary care doctor with Atrium Health Primary Care Charlotte Medical Clinic, referred Barbara to Dr. Puneet Aggarwal, medical director of physical medicine & rehabilitation at Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute.

Aggarwal ran some tests, including an MRI, and diagnosed Barbara with cervical facet syndrome, a type of osteoarthritis.

Barbara explains, “Dr. Aggarwal is very knowledgeable and compassionate. He listened to everything I said and slowly helped me to feel comfortable with the procedure that absolutely changed my life.”

Stepwise Approach to Treatment

Aggarwal initially tried a conservative approach to treat Barbara’s condition. This included physical therapy and medications, which provided only limited benefits.

Aggarwal then suggested radiofrequency ablation (RFA). The treatment acts like a nerve block and involves multiple injections into the neck near the spine.

RFA consists of two steps:

  1. Medial branch block. This diagnostic procedure injects numbing medicine into the pain nerves that the doctor suspects are causing pain to see if it provides pain relief. If it works, pain relief lasts for about a day and helps confirm the identity of the targeted pain nerves. The block is done twice, with two weeks off in between, to ensure accuracy.
  2. Radiofrequency ablation. This injection involves placing a probe through the needle and burning the pain nerves. The ablation stops the pain signals from being transmitted to the brain and delivers significant pain relief.

At first, Barbara felt anxious about trying the neck injections. But she eventually decided to get them so she could stop taking the opioids she was using to manage pain.

Barbara had RFA in November 2022. According to Aggarwal, the goal of treatment is to provide pain relief for at least a year. During that time, Barbara can focus on exercising and stretching to help remove the triggers for her neck pain. It’s possible that her pain relief could last longer than a year.

Coping with Anxiety

“I understood what health care could do for people – but I was very uncomfortable with the idea of procedures and needles,” Barbara explains. “I lost my mom to cancer at age 13. I was in a lot of hospitals and saw a horrible outcome at a very young age, so that anxiety stayed with me.”

Aggarwal was aware of her anxiety and didn’t push her into having the procedure. He explained everything in a way that made sense to her and helped her make a good decision about treatment.

“I worked with her slowly, taking the time to listen to her fears and address them,” Aggarwal notes. “She did really well during the procedure and said it was better than she thought it would be.”

The nursing team with Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute works hard to help patients relax and feel comfortable on the table. The team is known for having great bedside manner.

Barbara’s nurses were very supportive during her procedure. At the beginning, they gave her some anti-anxiety medication to help her relax.

“Genie, one of my nurses, was so incredible and compassionate,” says Barbara. “She held my hand right up to the time that the procedure began and was very reassuring.”

Improved Pain and Quality of Life

Since her treatment, Barbara is feeling better and happier.

“My mood is so much better, and I don’t complain constantly,” she says. “I’m feeling motivated again and paying more attention to my overall health.”

Barbara has seen a 60%-70% improvement in her pain. She still gets pain regularly, but it’s much less severe and can be managed with a low-dose pain medicine. She sees Aggarwal every six months for check-ins.

Thanks to Matt, her son and personal coach, Barbara is exercising at least four times a week. She enjoys swimming and working out at the gym. Since November, she has also lost 15 pounds.

She explains, “I would never have had the energy to do this before. The treatment has brought on this whole life change – diet, exercise and tracking progress – so I can feel as good as I can.”

“As people get older, they tend to think there’s nothing that can be done about their health,” Barbara notes. “They may think that pain is part of aging, but that’s just not the case. If I can do it, anyone can. You just need to give it a try. It has changed my life.”

Aggarwal finds it very rewarding to help patients with chronic pain improve their quality of life. He reminds them: “If you’re still having pain after trying several different treatments, there are often other options to consider. Schedule an appointment with us so we can try to help you get better.”

Learn more about orthopedic and sports medicine care at Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute.