Radiofrequency ablation is a minimally invasive procedure that doctors use for pain management and to shrink the size of cancerous tumors, nodules, and other growths.

It is a procedure that uses thermal energy to heat and destroy cancer cells or the small area of tissue that is causing pain.

This article outlines the purpose of radiofrequency ablation, the process, preparation, recovery, and outcomes.

A nurse preparing paperwork for radiofrequency ablation.Share on Pinterest
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Authors of a 2022 article note that people may require radiofrequency ablation if other treatments have been unsuccessful or if they are not good candidates for other forms of treatment, such as surgery.

Radiofrequency ablation uses localized heat to destroy abnormal or troublesome tissue. It uses radiofrequency waves to create heat within the tissue, stopping painful muscle contractions and reducing inflammation.

Radiofrequency ablation can treat chronic pain from conditions such as:

It can also treat pain that results from other conditions, such as cancer, kidney stones, or bone metastasis.

When treating cancerous tumors, the doctor will insert a thin, needle-like probe until the tip reaches the tumor. They then pass an electric current through the probe, heating the tumors and destroying the cancer cells.

Radiofrequency ablation does not require a general anesthetic, and a person will undergo the procedure in an outpatient setting.

Before beginning the procedure, a healthcare professional will give a person some medication to help them relax. They will also clean the skin where the ablation will occur and numb it with a local anesthetic.

Radiofrequency ablation involves inserting a thin, needle-like probe that emits radiofrequency waves. The healthcare professional uses imaging techniques, such as an ultrasound, to ensure that they place the probe in the correct location.

When they reach the desired site, they will activate the heating mechanism, which will destroy the tissue.

Typically, the healthcare professional will apply the heat to each area for 60–90 seconds but may require additional time if they need to perform multiple ablations.

After removing the probe, the healthcare professional will apply pressure to the site to help stop any bleeding and apply a dressing.

A person’s healthcare team can advise them about specific things they need to do to prepare for this procedure. However, a person may wish to arrange for someone to drive them home.

Sometimes, a person may need to fast before the procedure or avoid taking aspirin or other blood-thinning medications. However, it is important not to stop taking any medication unless the doctor advises otherwise.

A person can return home the same day as the procedure. They will also be able to resume their usual activities within 24 hours.

A person may experience mild pain following the procedure, which they can usually manage using over-the-counter pain relief medication.

Other people may require more time to recover. It is important to remember that everyone recovers differently, so there is no set timeline for recovery.

A 2022 meta-analysis found that radiofrequency ablation is an effective and safe treatment for knee pain in those with knee osteoarthritis.

One small 2020 article reviewed a study of 30 participants with back pain due to problems with the discs between their bones. After radiofrequency ablation:

  • 17 participants experienced excellent outcomes
  • 11 experienced good outcomes
  • 2 experienced fair outcomes

Radiofrequency ablation is generally considered a safe procedure with relatively few side effects when performed by an experienced healthcare professional.

However, there are still some risks to the procedure. Complications can include numbness, infections, or allergic reactions to any contrast dye or medications used during the procedure.

A person may also experience different complications depending on the nature of the condition that the radiofrequency ablation is treating.

The cost of radiofrequency ablation varies depending on several factors, including:

  • a person’s location
  • the clinic or doctor performing the procedure
  • the complexity of a person’s case

Medicare Part B may cover the cost of radiofrequency ablation. It is important that people speak to their health insurance company to find out if they cover this procedure.

For people without health insurance, it may be beneficial to speak with a doctor about potential payment plans that may be available.

Radiofrequency ablation is a minimally invasive procedure that can help to treat chronic pain and shrink cancerous tumors and other growths.

The procedure involves inserting a thin, needle-like probe that emits radiofrequency waves that can kill cancer cells or the small area of tissue causing discomfort.

It is an outpatient procedure, and a person can go home the same day and resume usual activities within 24 hours.