John’s story: RFA eases chronic back pain

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

By: Jeff Ash

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John Mortonson was desperate. He’d endured chronic low back pain for more than 20 years, way back to the 1990s. It was stealing his life.


“We went to the Grand Canyon,” he says, “but when my family wanted to go hiking and things, I just kind of had to bow out.”


The pain also caused back spasms lasting four to five days, keeping Mortonson away from work.


Mortonson, who is in his 60s, tried almost everything – pain medication, acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic care, heat and injections. But, he says, “nothing ever really seemed to resolve it.”


In 2013, he was referred to Dr. Thomas Wilkins, a physiatrist with BayCare Clinic Pain & Rehab Medicine in Green Bay. A physiatrist treats conditions and disorders that affect the musculoskeletal system – nerves, muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and more – causing pain or disrupting normal function.


Wilkins suggested radiofrequency ablation, or RFA. That’s a procedure in which nerves are scorched with precisely focused heat, stopping them from transmitting pain signals to the brain.


“It definitely works,” says, Mortonson, who lives in Green Bay. “It was a game-changer for me.”


Wilkins told Mortonson that pain relief from RFA is temporary, lasting maybe eight months, maybe a year and a half, maybe somewhere in between, until the scorched nerve regenerates.


“I just thought why not? Let’s try it,” Mortonson says.


Now he believes in radiofrequency ablation. He’s had it done five times. Wilkins performs the procedure at Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay and at Aurora BayCare Health Center in Kaukauna.


“I wish it were permanent, where I didn’t have to continue to go back, but at least I know when it’s time to go back,” says Mortonson, who knows it’s time “when the pain becomes severe again.”


Who benefits most from radiofrequency ablation? People with chronic low back pain for whom all other conservative measures have failed. People like John Mortonson.


“They are kind of at their wits’ end and they sit there and say, ‘Do I just have to live with this?’ Those are the people that are going to really get the best benefit out of this type of procedure,” Wilkins says.


They aren’t the only ones, though.


“This procedure can be done in other areas of the body,” Wilkins says. “It can also be done in the neck. It can be done for knees, it can be done for hips, it can be done for shoulder joints as well.”


The important thing, Wilkins says, is to do something about chronic back or joint pain.


“Don’t necessarily just suck it up and say there’s nothing that can be done.”


In addition to Green Bay, Dr. Thomas Wilkins sees patients in Kaukauna and Sturgeon Bay. To request an appointment, call 920-288-8377 or 866-965-4380 or do so online.


John Mortenson poses for a vacation photo with a valley and mountains in the distance.

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BayCare Clinic,, is the largest physician-owned specialty-care clinic in northeastern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It is based in Green Bay, Wisconsin. BayCare Clinic offers expertise in more than 20 specialties, with more than 100 physicians serving in 16 area communities. BayCare Clinic is a joint partner in Aurora BayCare Medical Center, a 167-bed, full-service hospital. Follow BayCare Clinic on Facebook and Twitter.