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Radiofrequency ablation

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) uses radio waves to heat up tumour cells in the liver and destroy them.

The heat only travels a short distance, so most of the healthy liver tissue is not affected. 

Why you have it

Doctors use RFA to treat carcinoid tumours that have spread to the liver and can't be removed with surgery. They generally use it for tumours that are less than 5cm across. 

RFA helps to control symptoms for most people. 

How you have it

You usually have the treatment in the scanning (x-ray) department of the hospital. You must not eat or drink for at least 6 hours before you have it.

You have RFA under general anaesthetic, or with a drug that makes you sleepy (sedation) and a local anaesthetic.

The doctor uses either an ultrasound scan or a CT scan to guide a special needle or probe through the skin into the tumour. The probe is an electrode that passes a radiofrequency current into the tumour. This heats the tumour and destroys it.

The treatment takes between 30 minutes and an hour. Afterwards, you need time to recover from the anaesthetic or sedation. You should be able to go home later the same day or the next day.

Side effects

You take painkillers for a few days after treatment as you can have some pain around the treatment site. You may also have some pain in your shoulders afterwards. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have pain after a week or the painkillers aren't helping.

Some people have flu-like symptoms that start about 3 to 5 days after treatment and can last up to a week. You may also feel tired. You should be back to doing your normal activities after about a week. Contact your doctor if you feel unwell after this time or have a temperature above 38C, as you may have an infection. 

There is a risk of damaging the bowel or bile ducts during the procedure. But this is rare because the doctor uses scans to help guide the probe in place.

Another risk is bleeding caused by the probe going into the liver. This is also rare. Your doctor and nurses monitor you closely during and after the procedure. So if this does happen, they can deal with it straight away.

Microwave ablation

Microwave ablation is a newer treatment for small tumours in the liver. It is similar to having radiofrequency ablation, but it uses different energy waves (microwaves) to heat and destroy the tumour.

Last reviewed: 
22 Jun 2016
  • Guidelines for the management of gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine (including carcinoid) tumours (NETs)
    JK Ramage and others
    Gut,  2012. Volume 61, Issue 1

  • Therapeutic strategies for neuroendocrine liver metastases
    A Frilling and AK Clift
    Cancer, 2015. Volume 121, Issue 8

  • Recommendations for management of patients with neuroendocrine liver metastases
    A Frilling and others
    Lancet Oncology, 2014. Volume 15, Issue 1

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