Understanding Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA) of Liver Tumors

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is a way to treat small liver tumors. RFA uses heat to kill the cancer cells. A type of radio wave is sent into a liver tumor through wires (electrodes). This creates heat that kills the tumor cells without harming a lot of nearby healthy cells.

Outline of man showing digestive tract and liver.

 How to say it

RAY-dee-oh-FREE-kwen-see uh-BLAY-shun

Why RFA of liver tumors is done

Radiofrequency ablation may be done if you can't have liver surgery. Or it may be done along with surgery. It’s most often done if you have a small number of tumors in your liver and the tumors are small (up to about 3 centimeters across).

How RFA of liver tumors is done

The treatment is done in a hospital, and takes 1 to 3 hours. During the procedure:

  • You are given medicine (anesthesia) to make you relax or sleep through the treatment. A thin needle might be used to put numbing medicine into the skin over the treated area.

  • The healthcare provider makes a small cut (incision) in your skin. In some cases, the provider makes a few cuts and a long, thin tube with a tiny light and camera on the end (laparoscope) is put through 1 of the cuts. This helps the provider see inside your body. In other cases, the provider may make 1 large cut instead.

  • The provider puts a needle-like probe through the cut and into your liver. The probe may have one or many electrodes.

  • An imaging scan, such as ultrasound, MRI, or CT is used to guide the probe into the tumor.

  • When it's in the right place, radio waves are sent through the electrode. This creates heat that kills the tumor cells. This is done for each tumor.

  • The tools are then taken out, and the cuts in the skin are closed with stitches (sutures).

  • After the treatment, you may be able to go home. Or you might stay in the hospital for a night or so.

Risks of RFA of liver tumors

  • Problems from the anesthesia

  • Skin burns

  • Bleeding

  • Leaking of bile from the liver

  • Infection

  • Blood clots

  • Damage to nearby organs, such as the gallbladder, bile ducts, intestines, or diaphragm

  • Damage to nearby blood vessels

  • Liver abscess, which is a pocket of infection inside the liver

  • Aches, fever, chills, pain, and upset stomach (nausea) for a few days (called post-ablation syndrome)

  • Need to repeat the procedure

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