Radiofrequency ablation is the use of electrical energy to heat and destroy an area of tissue.

Reasons for Procedure

Radiofrequency ablation is used to destroy abnormal tissue that may be causing health problems or symptoms. Conditions that may be managed or treated with ablation include:

  • Cancerous tumors that have not responded to surgery or chemotherapy —more common in liver, bone, kidney, breast, lung, or adrenal gland tumors. Ablation can reduce the size of tumors.
  • Cardiac arrhythmias —Ablation may be used to destroy areas of the heart that are causing irregular and/or rapid heart rates.
  • Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH)—Removes extra prostate tissue that may be causing difficulty urinating.
  • Severe snoring and/or sleep apnea —removes excess tissue at the back of the mouth and throat that may cause blockages during sleep.
  • Severe nerve pain
  • Varicose veins —removes problematic veins

Radiofrequency Ablation Results
cardiac ablation heart

Ablation procedure blocked impulses that had been causing atrial fibrillation.

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Possible Complications

Problems from the procedure are rare, but all procedures have some risk. Your doctor will review potential problems, like:

  • Discomfort
  • Bruising or bleeding
  • Infection
  • Lung collapse upon insertion of the probe—when the procedure involves the lung, liver, or upper kidney
  • Blood clots or damage to heart muscle or conduction pathways after procedures on the heart
  • Liver abscess
  • Damage to tissue surrounding the target area

Factors that may increase the risk of complications include:

  • Bleeding problems
  • Active infection

What to Expect

Prior to Procedure

  • Your doctor may order:
    • Blood tests
    • ECG a test that records the electrical currents passing through the heart muscle
    • Imaging tests like x-rays, ultrasound, or MRI scan
  • Ask your doctor if you need to avoid eating or drinking before the procedure.


You will most likely be given a sedative to help you relax. Local anesthesia will be used to numb the area. If this is done as part of another surgery, you may have general or spinal anesthesia.

Description of the Procedure

The exact steps of the procedure will depend on where the tissue is located. The tool will be a probe that is applied directly to the area or passed through a catheter to the area. Imaging devices such as a CT scan, ultrasound, or MRI scan will be used to help guide the doctor to the area.

A small amount of electricity is passed through the tube which heats and destroys the selected tissue. The probe may be repositioned to destroy other areas of tissue.

Immediately After Procedure

You will be monitored for 2-3 hours after the procedure.

How Long Will It Take?

About 10-60 minutes

How Much Will It Hurt?

Anesthesia will prevent pain during surgery. Pain and discomfort after the procedure will depend on the location and amount of tissue that was involved. Discomfort during recovery can be managed with medications.

Average Hospital Stay

It may be possible to leave the hospital on the same day of the procedure. Some will need to stay overnight so that the doctor can monitor them.

Post-procedure Care

Most return to normal activities within a few days of the procedure.

Call Your Doctor

It is important to monitor your recovery. Alert your doctor to any problems. If any of the following occur, call your doctor:

  • Signs of infection, including fever and chills
  • Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or any discharge from the incision site
  • Pain that you cannot control with the medications you were given
  • Cough, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, or chest pain
  • Persistent nausea or vomiting

If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.


American Cancer Society

Radiology Info—The Radiological Society of North America


BC Cancer Agency

Canadian Cancer Society


Ablation therapy for atrial fibrillation. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated April 27, 2017. Accessed November 28, 2017.

Cardiac procedures and surgeries. American Heart Association website. Available at Updated March 27, 2017. Accessed November 28, 2017.

Gazelle GS, Goldberg SN, Solbiati L, Livraghi T. Tumor ablation with radio-frequency energy. Radiology. 2000;217(3):633-646.

Radiofrequency ablation background. National Institutes of Health website. Available at Updated June 22, 2017. Accessed November 28, 2017.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA)/Microwave ablation (MWA) of lung tumors. Radiology Info—Radiological Society of North America website. Available at Upated August 15, 2017. Accessed November 28, 2017.

Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael J. Fucci, DO, FACC  Last Updated: 12/20/2014