Microwave ablation

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Henry Krebs, MD, Interventional and Diagnostic Radiologist

This page was reviewed on December 2, 2022.

Microwave ablation is a type of treatment that uses high temperatures to destroy cancer cells and tumors. Ablation refers to the removal or destruction of tissue, while microwave refers to the way energy is generated to heat the tissue.

Microwave ablation, also referred to as thermal ablation, is performed using a probe or antenna. Microwave pulses energize the cancer cells, heating them to a very high temperature.

The patient's cancer care team may recommend microwave ablation as a treatment for cancer. This guide may provide information about what to expect.

When is microwave ablation used?

Microwave ablation is most often used to treat small tumors or those that are hard to access. Sometimes, if the patient has other health complications and may not tolerate the stress of surgery, ablation is used as an alternative because it’s less invasive.

It may be used to treat a range of cancer types, including:

Thermal ablation is also used to treat noncancerous medical conditions, such as Barrett’s esophagus (a precancerous esophageal condition), and it may offer pain relief for patients with chronic issues due to conditions such as arthritis or back pain.

It’s a well-tolerated treatment option that’s less invasive than surgery, making for a faster and easier recovery process.

How to prepare for microwave ablation treatment

The patient's care team is able to provide clear instructions on how to prepare for the procedure. This is a good opportunity to ask questions and find out more about what to expect on the day of ablation treatment.

  • The patient may be asked to stop eating and drinking for a few hours before treatment.
  • The patient may need to temporarily stop any medications that could cause blood clotting.
  • The patient should provide his or her doctor with a list of all current medications beforehand, including over-the-counter medicines, as some could interfere with treatment.
  • The patient may want to arrange for a ride home.

What to expect during the microwave ablation procedure

Microwave ablation is usually done as an outpatient procedure, which means that the patient is able to go home on the same day.

  • Sedation or general anesthesia is given in addition to a local anesthetic so the patient doesn't feel discomfort.
  • The doctor inserts a probe into the skin, using computed tomography (CT) scans or other imaging tools to guide it to the location of the tumor.
  • An electrical current runs through the probe and into the tumor, heating to a high temperature that aims to kill and destroy the cancer cells.

Depending on the tumor’s position, the doctor may also use an endoscopy or laparoscopy to access the area.

The procedure lasts anywhere from a half-hour to several hours, depending on the tumor type and number of tumors being ablated.

Is microwave ablation painful?

Because patients are sedated during the ablation procedure, they won’t feel any pain or discomfort while it’s happening. Afterward, patients may feel mild pain in the area where the microwave ablation procedure occurred. 

Microwave ablation side effects

Microwave ablation is regarded as a safe medical procedure, but side effects and complications are still possible. In some cases, the patient may experience:

  • Discomfort
  • Fever
  • General unwell feeling
  • Infection at the treatment site

The patient may also feel some discomfort where the needle was inserted for the treatment, but this should subside within a few days.

If the patient has ablation for treatment of lung cancer, there’s a small risk of bleeding or collapsing of the lungs. For ablation in the kidneys, there’s a chance of seeing blood in the urine after the procedure.

If it feels like something is wrong during recovery at home, always call the care team right away. In particular, let the care team know if any of the following occur:

  • Signs of infection (such as fever or chills)
  • Excessive bleeding from the treated area
  • Bloody cough
  • Severe pain

How to know if microwave ablation is successful

A few weeks after the procedure, the doctor may order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or CT scan to check whether the tumors are gone or shrunken in size, a good indicator of the treatment’s success.

If the tumors are still present, the care team may discuss another course of radiofrequency ablation or suggest other treatment options.

The care team is there to help the patient along every step of the way, so it’s OK to ask questions or seek clarification at any time during the process.

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