A kidney (or renal) ablation is a procedure that’s done to remove, shrink, or destroy something in or around your kidneys. This might include tumors, kidney stones, or nerves in renal arteries.

A renal ablation is less invasive than surgery. The exact procedure depends on the type of ablation you’re having. Most ablations are performed as outpatient procedures and have a very short recovery time.

There are several types of renal ablation. Which one you’ll have will likely depend on the condition being treated and your overall health.

Types of renal ablation include the following:

  • Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) destroys kidney tumors using radio waves.
  • Microwave ablation (MWA) uses microwave energy to destroy kidney tumors.
  • Cryoablation destroys kidney tumors using extremely cold temperatures. It’s also called cryotherapy.
  • Renal denervation (RDN) uses radiofrequency to burn the nerves in your renal arteries and decrease blood pressure.
  • Shock wave lithotripsy (SWL) uses strong shock waves to break up kidney stones.

Kidney ablations are primarily used to treat kidney tumors.

Ablation can also be used to treat kidney stones and high blood pressure.

Renal ablation isn’t the right treatment option for everyone with these conditions, though. A healthcare professional will let you know whether kidney ablation is a good option for you.

Ablation for kidney cancer

Often, the first treatment for kidney cancer is surgery to remove the tumor. However, not all people with cancer are able to undergo surgery.

People who aren’t healthy enough for surgery, or who would be at increased risk of complications from surgery, might be candidates for kidney ablation instead.

Ablation options for kidney cancer include:

  • radiofrequency ablation (RFA)
  • microwave ablation (MVA)
  • cryoablation

Although the methods of destroying the tumor are different with each type of ablation, the procedures are similar.

You’ll receive either local or general anesthesia before the procedure to reduce pain. The doctor will then use ultrasound or CT imaging to help them guide a long and thin needle directly into the tumor. They’ll then use radio waves, microwave energy, or cold gasses to kill the cancer cells.

In some cases, the needle can be inserted directly through your skin and into the tumor. In other cases, you might need to have a small incision made first that the doctor can guide the needle through.

Generally, ablation for kidney cancer can be performed as an outpatient procedure. Factors such as your overall health and the type of anesthesia you receive might mean you’ll stay in the hospital overnight.

Getting support for renal cancer

A cancer diagnosis can be stressful and overwhelming, but you don’t have to face it alone. There are places you can turn to for support. Consider the following:

  • The Kidney Cancer Association offers peer support groups, resource videos, patient liaisons, and more to help you manage your diagnosis.
  • The Cancer Support Helpline is available by phone or live chat in more than 200 languages. They can connect you to community resources, local support groups, financial assistance programs, and more.
  • Smart Patients Kidney Cancer Forum is a message board for people with cancer and their families to share knowledge and get support.
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Kidney ablation for hypertension

High blood pressure, or hypertension, that hasn’t responded to lifestyle changes or medication is called resistant hypertension.

If you have resistant hypertension, your doctor might recommend kidney ablation as a treatment option.

Kidney ablation for hypertension uses a procedure called renal denervation (RDN). It works by killing select nerves in your renal arteries. This leads to an overall decrease in your nerve activity and can decrease your blood pressure.

An RDN is normally an outpatient procedure. You’ll be given a local anesthetic, and a catheter will be inserted into the femoral artery in your thigh. The doctor will then use ultrasound or CT imaging to guide them as they work the catheter to your renal arteries. Radiofrequency pulses will then be sent through the catheter in waves and will burn the nerves of the renal arteries.

Ablation for kidney stones

Kidney stones that don’t pass on their own require medical treatment. Shock wave lithotripsy (SWL) is a very common treatment for kidney stones. It breaks up kidney stones into tiny dust-like fragments that can easily pass out of your body.

An SWL normally takes about 45 minutes to an hour to perform. It’s typically done as an outpatient procedure. You’ll be given local anesthesia, general anesthesia, or sedation before the procedure begins.

During the procedure, you’ll lie flat on an operating table. A water-filled cushion will be placed on your stomach or behind your kidney. About 1,000 to 2,000 shock waves will be applied to the kidney stone to crush it.

If your kidney stone is very painful, you have reduced kidney function, or if you are at risk of infection, you might also have a tube called a stent inserted into your kidney through your bladder to help remove the kidney stone.

Generally, kidney ablations are considered safe. They are less invasive than surgeries and are well-tolerated by most people.

However, there are some potential risks with kidney ablation, as with any procedure. The possible complications for a kidney ablation will depend on the type of ablation you have:

  • Kidney cancer ablations. Side effects are rare but can occur with kidney cancer ablations. The most common complications include bleeding, kidney damage, and damage to nearby organs.
  • Hypertension ablations. RDN for hypertension is a relatively new treatment. Its effectiveness and complications are still being studied. Currently, known possible complications include a slowed heart rate during the procedure, renal artery stenosis, tearing of the renal arteries, a hole in the renal artery, and bruising to the thigh.
  • Kidney stone ablations. The common compilations of SWL occur in the days immediately following the procedure. They include stomach pain, aching, and cramping. Less commonly, more serious complications such as damage to the kidney, bleeding around the kidney, or pieces of stone blocking urinary flow can occur.

Most kidney ablations are done as outpatient procedures. However, you might need to stay overnight in the hospital if you had general anesthesia, or if your doctor thinks you need additional monitoring.

Recovery from any type of kidney ablation is typically quick. You should be able to resume light activities in a week or less but may need to avoid exercise or lifting anything heavy for longer.

If you’re concerned about recovery, make sure to talk with your doctor. They’ll have detailed instructions for you.

Kidney ablation is considered to be an effective treatment choice for kidney cancer, kidney stones, and resistant hypertension.

However, success rates aren’t the same across conditions. Additionally, factors such as your overall health, age, and disease progression can all have an impact on treatment success.

  • Kidney cancer. Studies show high rates of success when kidney ablation is used to treat early stages of kidney cancer. While exact numbers vary slightly among studies, the average 5-year survival rate for people treated with any type of kidney ablation for kidney cancer is 95 percent.
  • Resistant hypertension. RDN data is still being collected and analyzed. But studies have consistently shown that people have significantly lower blood pressures after RDN.
  • Kidney stones. SWL works best on kidney stones that are fewer than 2 centimeters in size and for people who are otherwise good candidates for the procedure. Generally, this means people who don’t have bleeding disorders, active infections, skeletal abnormalities, and who are not pregnant or have obesity. Seventy-five percent of people who are good candidates for SWL and have the procedure are completely free of kidney stones within 3 months.

Renal ablation procedures are noninvasive treatments that can be used to remove tumors and kidney stones. They can also be used to help treat resistant hypertension.

Kidney ablations are generally done as outpatient procedures and have very little recovery time.

Generally, renal ablations are considered very safe. While they’re not always the right choice for everyone managing kidney cancer, kidney stones, or hypertension, they are an effective option in many cases.