Thyroid Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA) for Benign Thyroid Nodules

Thyroid nodules, even when benign (non-cancerous), can grow visibly large and cause swallowing or breathing difficulties, persistent cough, and hoarseness. Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA) is a non-surgical treatment option that can reduce the size of thyroid nodules and restore thyroid function. RFA is a minimally-invasive technique performed by an endocrine surgeon guided by ultrasound imaging. The physician delivers targeted radio waves that disrupts the nodule’s cells, causing them to shrink as the body absorbs the ablated tissue.

Thyroid RFA Procedure - Saint Johns Cancer Institute

Why Choose RFA instead of surgery?

Thyroid RFA is non-surgical treatment for thyroid nodules. It greatly reduces the need for nodule surgery and the use of Radioactive Iodine (RAI). While surgery results in a visible scar, the RFA procedure is minimally invasive and a safe and relatively quick treatment option. RFA also enables patients to resume normal daily activity with minimal recovery time. While surgery may involve removing part of the thyroid, RFA maintains thyroid integrity, which supports improved thyroid function.

RFA has been proven to reduce the size of thyroid nodules.

2019 RFA Published Findings for Thyroid – Rate of Nodule Reduction According to Size1
6 months 1 year 2 years 3 years 4 years 5 years
 All nodules 56.2%*  63%*  67.4%*  66.7%  66.9%  66.9%
 Less than 10 mL in size  79%*  78%  76.8%  76.8%  75%  81.8%
Greater than 10 and less than 20 mL in size  59%*  66.7%*  74.2%*  74.2%  70%  74.5%
 Greater than 20 mL in size  54.5%*  60.9%*  62.4%*  62.4%  62%  65.3%

*Rate of reduction was calculated with respect to the baseline volume.

The term radiofrequency (RF) refers to an alternating electric current oscillating between 200 kHz and 1200 kHz. Application of radiofrequency in a medical setting agitates tissue ions as they attempt to follow the changes in direction of the alternating current, thereby creating frictional heat around the electrode. The heat generated from the emitter affects the immediate tissue, which is only within a few millimeters of the electrode tip. RF has been used as a medical treatment successfully for many parts of the body including the spine, liver, colon, and prostate.

Listen to Dr. Melanie Goldfarb discuss RFA for Thyroid

Dr. Melanie Goldfarb, Director, Center for Endocrine Tumors and Disorders, and Associate Professor of Surgery at Saint John’s Health Center discusses this novel RFA procedure.

Benefits of Thyroid Radiofrequency Ablation

Clinical trials involving RFA for benign thyroid nodules have shown a reduction in size by 51-85% within the first six months. In most patients, nodule related symptoms were significantly improved or had disappeared. Similar results were seen for thyroid function, such as normalizing blood-hormone levels for patients that presented with a toxic hormone-producing thyroid nodule.

  • A minimally-invasive procedure
  • Preserves your healthy thyroid tissue and allows it to function normally without the need for a lifetime of medication
  • Performed under local anesthesia as an out-patient procedure (no downtime or hospitalization)
  • Shorter recovery time
  • No visible scarring
  • Reduced the volume of the nodule with a low complication rate
  • Improves quality of life

What to expect during RFA treatment

Dr. Melanie Goldfarb performs ultrasound imaging, examining the size of thyroid nodules
Dr. Melanie Goldfarb performs ultrasound imaging, examining the size of thyroid nodules

About an hour prior to the procedure, or upon check-in, patients are typically given a low-dose sedative to help them relax. A local anesthetic is applied externally to the treatment area around the thyroid gland. Patients will sometimes doze off during the procedure or may choose to listen to music.

Once the patient is relaxed, the doctor positions a thin needle into the nodule under continuous ultrasound guidance. Radiofrequency energy is emitted from the tip of the needle which causes very precise erosion of the targeted tissue. The physician systematically guides the instrument through the entire nodule, treating as much of the inner volume as is safe to do so. Patients can expect to go home about 30-45 minutes after the procedure. Any post-treatment discomfort is easily managed with an orally-taken pain reliever (acetaminophen).

Risks of Thyroid RFA

All medical treatments and procedures have risks which will be discussed in detail with you or your family member. Serious complications are rare with the RFA procedure because it is a minimally-invasive, out-patient procedure. Bleeding, hoarse voice (due to nerve bruising), skin burns, and infection are possible, but with safety and best practices protocols for RFA, side effects can be effectively mitigated, including localized swelling and redness. Though infection can be a delayed problem, it will be continuously monitored by the treating physician and clinical team.

Why is it important to maintain a healthy thyroid?

Our brain, heart, digestive, and metabolic systems function normally with the help of the thyroid gland. It is a butterfly-shaped organ located at the front of the neck near the base of the throat, wrapping around the windpipe. The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system, where it secretes hormones to regulate the body’s heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and metabolism.

Additional complications can involve the esophagus, trachea, and nerves that surround to the vocal cords. The risk of permanent injury to these areas is extremely rare. Larger nodules may require multiple RFA treatments for effective nodule shrinkage, which can increase risk. Your doctor will discuss the likelihood of needing additional treatments with you during your initial assessment.

1Primary Prevention of ASCVD and T2DM in Patients at Metabolic Risk: An Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 104, Issue 9, September 2019, Pages 3939–3985

If you have questions regarding RFA treatments for benign thyroid nodules, please call today. Request an appointment

Melanie Goldfarb, M.D., M.Sc., FACS, FACE

Director, Center for Endocrine Tumors and Disorders
Medical Director for Cancer Survivorship

Dr. Melanie Goldfarb is a fellowship-trained endocrine surgeon and Director of the Center for Endocrine Tumors and Disorders. Her expertise is minimally invasive surgery for thyroid cancer and disorders, hyperparathyroidism, and adrenal tumors, including pheochromocytoma, Cushings, Conns, and adrenal cancer.

Melanie Goldfarb, M.D., M.Sc., FACS, FACE Director, Center for Endocrine Tumors and Disorders