Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA) is a minimally invasive interventional radiology procedure that uses heat produced by radio waves to kill abnormal cells. Heat is very effective at eliminating cancerous cells, stopping any further growth. RFA is commonly used as part of a cancer treatment plan. During RFA, imaging technologies such as ultrasound or CT help the physician clearly see the affected tissue, and a thin needle equipped with an electrode is applied to the tumor. As controlled currents of energy impact the tissue, the heat generated destroys the cells. Healthy cells grow back in their place. RFA is able to treat malignant or pre-cancerous masses that may be embedded in tissue or in areas otherwise difficult to access.

Why Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA) is Performed

Radiofrequency ablation is considered a complementary treatment for cancer (as opposed to a primary treatment). Patients with multiple small tumors affecting a single organ may also benefit from RFA. It is often recommended when a patient has a small cancerous mass that is creating pain or other physical discomfort.  Physicians take several factors into account when determining if RFA is an appropriate treatment option for a patient. Age, previous treatment and response, overall medical status, and cancer stage all play a role in the decision making process. Cancers in which RFA is commonly utilized include:

  • Breast
  • Bone
  • Kidney
  • Liver
  • Lung
  • Prostate

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What to Expect During Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA)

Radiofrequency ablation is typically performed in an outpatient setting with a possible overnight stay for observation. That decision usually depends on the area or organ being ablated and the patient’s current overall medical status. To start, patients are given conscious sedation and local anesthesia is used to numb the area of skin where a small incision will be made. The interventional radiologist guides a long, thin needle with an electrode at the tip through the incision and into the diseased tissue. Imaging guidance helps the provider perform this procedure safely. Once the needle is at the tumor site, radio wave energy is applied to the tumor. It may take several placements on the mass to destroy it completely. The physician will also apply the heat to a margin of healthy tissue to ensure no malignant cells remain. After the treatment, a bandage covers the incision site. The procedure may take two to four hours in total, depending on the size of the tumor, number of tumors, and the organ involved.

Risks and Benefits of Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA)

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is generally well-tolerated and has high success in stopping the further spread of cancerous cells. In addition to eliminating these malignant cells via heat, the approach also incites an inflammatory response to increase cell destruction. Most patients report very little discomfort following the procedure, which generally does not produce many side effects or complications. However, as RFA is a medical procedure, there is risk. Bleeding, infection at the probe insertion site, and unintended damage to healthy tissue and nearby organs are risks. The imaging guidance used during the procedure helps minimize the likelihood of these issues.

Learn more about the benefits and risks of interventional radiology.

How to Prepare for Radiofrequency Ablation

Patients will likely need routine bloodwork to check their overall immune status and blood clotting ability before radiofrequency ablation. The care team will ask about all current medications and counsel the patient on any that should be paused ahead of the RFA appointment. A team member will also give instructions on when to stop eating and drinking prior to the procedure.

Post Radiofrequency Ablation

The patient will move to a recovery room after the radiofrequency ablation procedure. Any pain or nausea will be treated during this time, as needed. Patients usually return home after a single night hospital stay. Depending on the level of pain at discharge, prescription pain relief may be ordered. Pain should resolve within a few days. Follow-up CT scans will be scheduled to check the ablation site to ensure that no cancerous cells have returned. If it is found that cancerous cells have returned, another RFA treatment may be recommended.