Radiofrequency ablation is a clinical procedure used to destroy cancerous tumors in the liver, lungs, kidneys or elsewhere in the body when surgery would be too dangerous. It involves inserting a metal needle into the center of a tumor and introducing a very specific range of electrical current. Electrical signals cause surrounding tissue to oscillate and heat up until they are destroyed. Specialized radiofrequency ablation procedures are also utilized to stabilize erratic heartbeats, ease chronic nerve pain, and treat varicose veins.
In most cases, surgical excision is the best choice for removing an isolated tumor. It may be deemed too risky to operate on certain tumors, however, such as those within bones or vital organs. Radiofrequency ablation provides another option to combat a tumor before cancer starts to spread to other parts of the body. The minimally-invasive procedure is nearly painless and can be performed in less than one hour in most cases. Patients can undergo radiofrequency ablation in a specialty center, hospital, or surgical clinic, and they are usually allowed to go home after a single overnight stay.
General or local anesthesia may be administered, depending on the site of the tumor and the wishes of the patient. With the aid of ultrasound images or computerized tomography scans, a radiologist guides the needle into the core of a cancerous mass. He or she then runs a high-frequency alternating current through the needle. The heat generated by the current penetrates the entire tumor and quickly causes cells to die. The radiologist carefully monitors imaging scans during the procedure to make sure the tumor is completely ablated and that nearby healthy tissue is left unharmed.
Radiofrequency procedures for heart arrhythmia problems are similar to the one used for tumor ablation. A specially trained cardiologist inserts the needle into the section of heart muscle that seems to be overactive. He or she then uses current to destroy a small number of electrically-active cells, which restores normal functioning. In addition, varicose veins are shrunk when they are introduced to electricity, and damaged nerve cells that cause chronic pain can be destroyed with radiofrequency ablation.
Following radiofrequency ablation, a patient is usually brought to a recovery room so nurses can monitor his or her vital signs. Since the procedure causes little or no pain and does not require a skin incision, most patients do not have complications. Follow-up examinations can reveal whether or not the procedure was entirely effective at destroying a tumor. If cancer returns or persists, another round of radiofrequency ablation can be performed.