Arterial embolization is a minimally invasive surgical procedure used to block off blood flow to tumors. It is also known as transarterial embolization.

Doctors often use this procedure to treat both benign (noncancerous) and malignant (cancerous) kidney tumors. They may also use it to control the symptoms of advanced kidney (renal) cancer.

Keep reading to learn more about the procedure, its uses, and what recovery looks like.

Blood feeds kidney tumors by delivering nutrients and oxygen to them. Arterial embolization cuts off a tumor’s blood supply. This causes the tumor to shrink in size.

Since it doesn’t remove the tumor, arterial embolization is not a cure for kidney cancer when used as a sole treatment.

If you have kidney cancer but aren’t well enough to withstand the rigors of major surgery, such as removing a kidney, your doctor may recommend doing an arterial embolization first. This may shrink the tumor enough to make surgery viable or more successful.

Arterial embolization is often part of palliative care during advanced kidney cancer treatment. Shrinking the tumor in size can help relieve pain and other symptoms.

Treatment for angiomyolipomas

Doctors also routinely use this arterial embolization to shrink noncancerous angiomyolipoma tumors. Angiomyolipomas are benign tumors comprised of fat and muscle tissue. They’re often asymptomatic but, in some instances, can rupture and bleed or become large.

Large angiomyolipomas can cause pain. They can also be a cause of kidney failure.

People with tuberous sclerosis, a rare genetic condition, are prone to angiomyolipoma tumors.

Doctors consider arterial embolization to be a safe and effective treatment. It has successfully treated kidney cancer and other conditions such as uterine fibroids for decades. But there are some risks.

Potential complications from this procedure include:

  • renal failure
  • hematoma (blood clot) at the catheter insertion site
  • temporary pulmonary arterial hypertension (high blood pressure in the arteries that connect your heart to your lungs)
  • postembolization syndrome

Postembolization syndrome

Postembolization syndrome (PES) is the most common complication of arterial embolization. Some studies suggest it can occur in up to 89% of cases. The release of breakdown products from embolized tissue may cause PES.

Symptoms of PES can start within 72 hours after the procedure. They include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • fever
  • abdominal pain
  • leukocytosis (increased white blood cell count)

PES is temporary and usually resolves on its own. Your doctor may recommend intravenous (IV) fluids to reduce the risk of dehydration. They may also give you pain relievers.

Your doctor will give you specific instructions on how to prepare for your procedure. Since you’ll be under anesthesia, your doctor will instruct you to stop eating and drinking at a certain time. They may also instruct you to stop taking certain prescription or over-the-counter medications.

You can expect the procedure to follow these steps:

  1. The surgeon will make a small incision in your groin (upper thigh).
  2. They will then insert a thin, flexible tube called a catheter into the incision.
  3. Using X-ray pictures viewed on a screen, the surgeon will guide the catheter into an artery close to the kidney tumor.
  4. Once the catheter is in place, they will inject tiny beads or gelatin sponge particles into the catheter.
  5. These particles will block the artery and stop blood flow to the tumor.
  6. The surgeon will remove the catheter and apply manual pressure to the insertion site to stop any bleeding.

An arterial embolization procedure usually takes about an hour but can be longer. It may be an outpatient procedure, but some people require a short hospital stay.

If you have this procedure as an outpatient, you’ll remain in recovery for several hours to ensure there are no complications. Hospital staff will have you elevate your leg with the incision during this time. They’ll keep you comfortable with IV fluids and pain medication during your stay.

After recovery, a relative or friend can drive you home. Do not anticipate being able to drive yourself.

In the days after the procedure, your doctor may advise you to drink lots of clear fluids. Use an ice pack at the incision site to reduce pain and swelling. Let your doctor know of any unusual symptoms, including fever, increasing pain, or swelling at the incision site.

Sudden, increased swelling at the incision site may indicate arterial bleeding and be a medical emergency. Let your doctor know if this occurs or call emergency services right away.

You should avoid strenuous activity and heavy lifting for around 4 to 6 weeks. During that time, your doctor may schedule an in-office or telehealth appointment to see how you are recovering.

Arterial embolization is not a cure for kidney cancer. It is used primarily during palliative care to reduce the symptoms of inoperable kidney cancer. Arterial embolization can help you feel comfortable and enjoy life, despite having kidney cancer.

This procedure may also make surgery a more viable option if you have early-stage kidney cancer.

Arterial embolization is a minimally invasive procedure that blocks a tumor’s blood supply. Doctors use it to treat benign and cancerous kidney tumors.

For early-stage kidney cancer, this procedure may shrink tumors prior to surgery. During palliative care for advanced kidney cancer, it can provide some relief from symptoms.