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Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA) of Lung Tumors

What is radiofrequency ablation (RFA) of lung tumors?

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is a method of killing tissue in the body. It can be used as a treatment for cancer. Electricity is sent into a tumor with a needle electrode. The electricity creates heat that kills the cancer cells. The heat also closes nearby blood vessels to limit bleeding. As you heal after the procedure, scar tissue replaces the tumor.

The healthcare provider uses an imaging scan to see where to put the needle in your lungs. He or she may use a CT scan or MRI. This is a minimally-invasive procedure. It lets your healthcare provider treat the cancer through small cuts in the skin. You may recover more quickly and have less pain after this procedure than with surgery.

Why might I need RFA of lung tumors?

Surgery is the main type of treatment for cancer growing in the lungs. Many people are diagnosed when they have advanced cancer, so lung surgery is no longer an option. RFA is a treatment option for some people. It can be done more than once if needed.

RFA may be part of your overall cancer treatment. You may have it along with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or both. Using RFA to reduce the tumor size may help some people live longer.

Your healthcare provider may advise this treatment to:

  • Treat some early-stage lung cancer instead of surgery

  • Treat cancer that has spread to the lungs from another place in the body

  • Manage or ease pain from tumors

  • Treat tumors that have returned to the same site

  • Treat cancer in the lungs if invasive treatment is not an option due to your age or overall health

RFA may not be an option if the tumor is too close to organs or tissues that may be damaged.

What are the risks of RFA of lung tumors? 

All procedures have some risks. The risks of RFA of lung tumors include:

  • Air that collects in the chest cavity and causes part of the lung to collapse (pneumothorax)

  • Excess bleeding

  • Too much fluid in the space between the lung and the membrane around it (pleural effusion)

  • Infection

  • Pain

  • Lung disease symptoms that get worse

  • Risks of radiation exposure if a CT scan is used

Your own risks may vary according to your age, your general health, and the reason for your procedure. Talk with your healthcare provider to find out what risks may apply to you.

How do I get ready for RFA of lung tumors?

Talk with your healthcare provider how to prepare for your procedure. Tell him or her about all the medicines you take. This includes over-the-counter medicines, prescription medicines, vitamins, herbs, and other supplements. You may need to stop taking some medicines before the procedure, such as blood thinners and aspirin. If you smoke, you may need to stop before your procedure. Smoking can delay healing. Talk with your healthcare provider if you need help to stop smoking.

You may need some tests before the procedure, such as blood tests. These may be done to see how your kidneys and liver are working and make sure your blood clots well.

Tell your healthcare provider if you:

  • Have had any recent changes in your health, such as an infection or fever

  • Are sensitive or allergic to any medicines, latex, tape, and anesthetic agents (local and general)

  • Have a history of bleeding disorders

  • Are taking any blood-thinning (anticoagulant) medicines, aspirin, ibuprofen, or other medicines that affect blood clotting

  • Are pregnant or think you may be pregnant


  • Ask a family member or friend to take you home from the hospital. You can’t drive yourself if you are given sedation during the procedure.

  • Not eat or drink after midnight the night before your surgery.

  • Follow all other instructions from your healthcare provider.

You will be asked to sign a consent form that gives your permission to do the procedure. Read the form carefully. Ask questions if something is not clear.

What happens during RFA of lung tumors?

RFA of lung tumors may take a few hours. The procedure will likely follow these basic steps:

  • You’ll lie on an exam table. You’ll receive an IV (intravenous line) in your hand or arm. Your healthcare team will give you medicine through this tube.

  • Your healthcare team will track your blood pressure, heart rate, and pulse.

  • RFA may be done while you’re awake or under general anesthesia. If you’re awake, your healthcare provider will numb the place on your body where he or she will do the procedure.

  • Your healthcare provider will make a small cut in your skin. This is done to insert the needle electrode. He or she will use an imaging scan, such as a CT scan to guide the needle electrode into the lung tumor.

  • An electrical current will pass through the electrode to destroy the tumor. The electrode may need to be moved around to other parts of the tumor to reach all of it.

  • Once the procedure is done, your healthcare provider will take out the electrode and the IV line. A bandage will be put over the site.

What happens after RFA of lung tumors?

You may have pain and nausea after RFA. These side effects are often mild and can be controlled with medicines. You should be able to go home the same day, a few hours after the procedure.

An X-ray will be taken about 2 hours after the procedure. This is to make sure that no section of your lung has collapsed or been harmed. Sometimes part of the lung collapses because of trapped air. In some cases, you may need a small tube put in the lung to remove the air. The tube may be removed in 1 to 2 days. Make sure to go to all of your follow-up appointments.

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of the below:

  • Redness or fluid leaking at the incision

  • Fever or chills

  • Shortness of breath

Within about a week, you should feel back to normal and be able to return your daily activities. Call your healthcare provider if you have any problems after the procedure. He or she will tell you about tests after the procedure to see how well it worked.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure

  • The reason you are having the test or procedure

  • What results to expect and what they mean

  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure

  • What the possible side effects or complications are

  • When and where you are to have the test or procedure

  • Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are

  • What would happen if you did not have the test or procedure

  • Any alternative tests or procedures to think about

  • When and how will you get the results

  • Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems

  • How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure

Online Medical Reviewer: Deepak Sudheendra, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Richard LoCicero, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2018
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.