Lindsey Cavlovic never thought she would be the same again after she was hit by a car last summer in Blackston, NE. The crash left her with 22 broken bones, including several ribs. She was expecting a painful, years-long recovery but a procedure known as cryoablation of the intercostal nerves helped her get back on her feet much sooner than expected.
“It would’ve been so much harder and taken a much longer time to recover,” she says. “You don’t want to do physical therapy when you’re in so much pain constantly, so it just alleviated the pain in my chest and allowed me to focus on the other injuries.”
The procedure is designed to repair broken ribs by holding them in place with titanium plates.
“Each one of your ribs has a nerve that runs underneath it which is called the intercostal nerve, and that can be a source of pain especially when you break your ribs,” says Nebraska Medicine’s Trauma Medical Director, Dr. Zachary Bauman, who also serves as the director of the chest wall injury program at Nebraska Medicine.
Bauman is considered an expert on cryoablation of the intercostal nerves. He explains that the nerves will start to regenerate after being frozen for three to six months.
“Basically, what that is, is freezing that nerve down to minus 60 degrees Celsius we freeze them for a total of two minutes and by doing that, [it] deadens the nerve and creates a numbing sensation across the chest, and it really helps with not only the operative pain but the rib fracture pain itself.”
He performed the procedure on Cavlovic three days after her accident.
“It’s tremendously beneficial,” Bauman adds. “When your chest wall gets injured with rib fractures or sternal fractures, it’s extremely painful, and the thing about your ribs is they never stop moving. Unlike other bones in the body when you want them to heal, we stabilize those and keep them from moving and it’s not as painful. But your ribs you can never stop moving, otherwise, you’d stop breathing and you’d die.”
Studies show the procedure can speed up the recovery process for patients and reduce their dependence on pain medication, which comes with powerful side-effects and can lead to addiction.
Cavlovic couldn’t be happier with the results.
“I can confidently say that this procedure allowed me to stop taking the opioids far before I would’ve been able to if I had not had the procedure done,” she says. “I mean just nine weeks after my accident, I was able to stop taking opioids.”
The procedure has had so much of an impact on her life that she recently decided to follow in Dr. Bauman’s footsteps. She says she always planned on going to medical school. She originally wanted to study oncology. But now her focus is clear.
“I want to do research in cryoablation because I think the future of it is so promising, and as it becomes done more and more, other patients can have a chance to recover quickly, and as well as I have,” she says.
Cavlovic is currently enrolled in the Anatomy program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. She plans on applying for medical school at UNMC in the fall.
Dr. Bauman knows what it’s like to recover from a serious injury and live with horrible chronic pain. He too decided to focus on cryoablation after getting into a tragic accident at a young age.
“When I was 18, I broke some ribs, I got kicked in the chest by a horse, I grew up in the rodeo,” he says. “So, I had three rib fractures, and I know what they feel like, they’re very painful.”
Cryoablation wasn’t common at the time, and now Bauman is trying to bring the life-altering procedure to more patients living with broken ribs.
“We are actually working on implementing this in the clinic so we can do this percutaneous, if you come to the clinic and maybe you didn’t need rib fixation at the time, but you still have some chronic pain, we’re looking at trying to implement that and perform this right in the clinic under ultrasound guidance and local anesthesia.”