Patients with benign thyroid nodules may need treatment if this medical condition is causing them pain or other clinical symptoms. As thyroid nodules grow, they can press on nerves, sending pain signals to the brain. Nodules may also release high levels of thyroid hormones, causing other health problems.
Previously, the only treatment option for benign nodules was thyroid surgery to remove the nodule. Doctors are now using newer technology to treat their patient’s thyroid nodules non-surgically. This includes thyroid radiofrequency ablation treatment.
Patients receiving this treatment option don’t require anesthesia and won’t face the recovery time of major surgery. Learn more about the procedure and see if it’s the right treatment for your thyroid nodule and neck pain.
What is Radiofrequency Ablation?
Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is a minimally invasive procedure that uses a region of heat to destroy tissue cells in nodules, tumors, and other growths in the body. RFA is classified as interventional radiology and nuclear medicine procedure. It’s used to treat cancer, thyroid nodules, and spinal cord conditions.
For these image-guided, minimally invasive procedures, a technician first places a long thin hollow needle into your body with the help of an ultrasound. An insulated wire is inserted into the needle. A small electrode at the tip of the wire sends an alternating electric current or electromagnetic waves, also called microwaves, through the surrounding tissue.
A range of radiofrequency waves causes friction and heat to develop in your tissue cells, eventually killing the cells. This stops pain signals from activating and provides pain relief to the patient. Once the cells die, the tissue shrinks gradually. RFA for benign thyroid nodules uses heat to destroy cells within your nodule, causing the size of your nodule to reduce over time.
The focused heat generated by radio waves does not damage any surrounding thyroid tissue or blood vessels. The image-guided ablation gradually reduces the symptoms your thyroid nodule is causing and stops your nodule from producing excess thyroid hormones. Unlike more invasive treatments, ablation for treatment of thyroid nodules doesn’t cause postoperative pain. The risk of infection from this outpatient procedure is minimal.
How Thyroid RFA is Performed
Thyroid RFA can be performed as an outpatient procedure at your local health care provider’s office. Your doctor may advise you to wear comfortable clothing and not wear any clothing or jewelry that covers your neck. You’ll be lying down on your back on a procedure table, with your head and neck supported by a pillow for the entire procedure.
You remain awake for your treatment but receive a local anesthetic to numb the area surrounding your thyroid gland. Some patients are offered ablation with medication and receive a mild sedative to help them feel more relaxed during the procedure. Once the anesthetic takes effect, a technician uses an ultrasound machine and transducer to locate your thyroid gland and nodule.
We use ultrasound guidance to place the needle into your thyroid nodule. Once the technician confirms the location is correct using this image-guided technique, they insert the insulated wire into the needle. They connect the wire and electrode to ground pads placed on your legs, so there is no risk of electrocution. The technician starts the RFA machine that sends alternating electrical currents.
The entire microwave ablation procedure is relatively quick, and the length depends on the number of nodules you have and their size. Most patients can expect their thyroid RFA treatment to last from 15 to 60 minutes. Since the treatment is outpatient, you can go home and resume all activities immediately following thyroid RFA treatment.
Other Benefits of RFA
RFA treatment is just as effective at providing long-term relief as surgery and offers patients benefits they can’t get from surgical removal of their thyroid.
Minimal scarring and damage
Your RFA treatment heats cells located in your thyroid nodule but does not heat or cause damage to any of your surrounding thyroid tissue. You don’t need to take additional thyroid medication after this microwave ablation treatment. It also doesn’t cause scarring on your neck.
Shorter procedure and recovery times
Patients can easily fit RFA into their schedules. Surgical incisions aren’t made into the neck, so they don’t need to take time off for recovery or physical therapy after. Patients can resume regular activities within a day of having RFA.
Using radiofrequency waves provides certain types of chronic pain relief. The radiofrequency current creates a region of heat to target nerve tissue, providing relief from severe pain for an extended period.
Side Effects and Risks from Thyroid RFA
RFA treatments target nerve fibers and nearby cells, so there’s always a slight risk of long-term damage to tissues around your thyroid, including your vocal cords. Some patients report having a hoarse voice from the procedure, but it clears up as they recover.
Patients may feel slight discomfort during the ablation procedure, but they won’t deal with high pain levels after. Patients don’t need to take prescription pain medicine to deal with the after-effects but may want to treat any discomfort with over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for relief.
While the chance of infection requiring further treatment is low with this procedure, it does exist. If you do get an infection, you will be prescribed antibiotic treatment. Risks and side effects from thyroid RFA are lower than with surgical procedures to remove thyroid nodules.
Can Everyone Get Thyroid RFA?
Most patients with benign thyroid nodules are good candidates for thyroid RFA. Patients diagnosed with inactive benign nodules and benign overactive nodules are both eligible for RFA treatment. Your doctor will assess your health and determine whether you are a good candidate for surgery or RFA treatment.
Elderly patients and others who may have more difficulty with surgery can still be eligible for RFA. Your doctor may take your vital signs, including taking your blood pressure and monitoring your heart rate to determine if you’re in good enough health for this procedure.
Who shouldn’t get thyroid RFA?
People with thyroid cancer, abnormal tissue in or around their thyroid, and other medical conditions aren’t suitable candidates for ablations using high-frequency electrical currents of their thyroid nodules. While RFA doesn’t damage your blood vessels, this interventional procedure can cause bleeding and is inappropriate for patients with blood disorders or those taking blood-thinners who can’t stop their medications.
The range of radiofrequency waves can also interfere with electrical devices, so people with pacemakers or defibrillators should avoid RFA. Patients with atrial flutter or other heart rhythm disorders should discuss the risks of this procedure with their doctor.
High blood pressure is another common condition that excludes patients from RFA treatment. Anyone with a history of neck trauma, neck surgery, or nerve damage in their neck is not a good candidate for this procedure.
Thyroid RFA Services at Associated Endocrinologists
Radiofrequency ablation is an effective treatment option for patients suffering from thyroid nodules. The heat from radiofrequency energy gradually shrinks nodules, stopping them from pressing onto the nerves responsible for pain. RFA has a similar success rate of providing lasting relief as surgical removal of thyroid nodules but is less invasive and has minimal risks and side effects.
Thyroid patients who are interested in RFA treatment should contact Associated Endocrinologists. Our office is one of the first to offer this interventional radiology and nuclear medicine procedure to thyroid patients in Michigan.
Our experienced endocrinologists provide ultrasound-guided RFA of thyroid nodules in our offices. We are happy to assess your thyroid health to determine if RFA is suitable for you.
Contact us today for an in-person appointment or a virtual consultation.