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What Is Interventional Radiology?

If you break your leg, chances are that you'll have X-rays taken in the radiology department. For decades, imaging technology like the CT scan has been used to assist doctors in diagnosing a variety of medical conditions. But did you know that this type of technology can also be used to help treat disease? Interventional radiology (IR) provides a minimally invasive way to treat a wide variety of health conditions in adults and children.

What Is Interventional Radiology?

Interventional radiology uses traditional imaging technology, like computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound, and fluoroscopy, to provide doctors with images of internal structures, such as arteries, bones, organs, and tumors. These highly detailed images enable doctors to perform minimally invasive procedures that guide small tubes through the blood vessels to deliver treatment directly to the affected tissue. IR can be used to treat cancer, heart disease, neurological conditions, spinal problems, vascular disease, and even some women's health issues.

Common Interventional Radiology Procedures

What is interventional radiology used for? Perhaps the most familiar treatment that uses image-guided technology is an angioplasty, where doctors thread a flexible catheter through a blood vessel to reach blocked arteries in the heart. After reaching the blockage, doctors can treat it by placing a stent or inflating a small balloon to open the artery and allow blood flow to resume. Here are a few other types of IR procedures.

  • Embolization: In this treatment, heat is used to destroy abnormal tissue almost anywhere in the body. For example, a doctor may place tiny radioactive particles into a cancerous tumor. The particles produce heat that destroys cancer cells. Another common type of embolization therapy is uterine artery embolization, where an interventional radiologist blocks arteries supplying blood to fibroid tumors. Deprived of oxygen and nutrients, the fibroids die. Interventional neuroradiologists may use embolization to treat tangled blood vessels in the brain.
  • Catheter ablation: Also called radiofrequency ablation, this treatment uses the heat generated by sound waves to selectively destroy tissue. It's commonly used to treat abnormal heart rhythms by making inactive pacemaker cells that developed in an area of the heart muscle where they shouldn't be.
  • Spinal fracture repair: Sometimes the spinal vertebrae can be repaired by using IR to inject a special type of cement or bonding agent into the bone.
  • Endovascular surgery: Varicose veins and other abnormalities of the blood vessels can often be treated using image-guided interventions that seal veins from the inside. Endovascular surgery also can be used to repair abdominal aortic aneurysms using minimally invasive techniques.
  • Access port or catheter placement: People receiving chemotherapy or dialysis may need to have access ports or catheters placed in a large blood vessel. These procedures use imaging technology to guide placement of the implanted device.
  • Drain and tube placement: When a medical condition requires placement of a drain to remove excess fluids from the body, the procedure may require advanced imaging to guide the process. The same is true for the placement of feeding tubes required to deliver nutrition directly to the stomach.

Candidates for Minimally Invasive IR Treatments

While interventional radiology may be used to treat a condition like cancer, it doesn't mean that all people with cancer, or all types of cancer, are good candidates for a minimally invasive treatment. In general, the best candidates for IR procedures are those in relatively good health who have a nonadvanced disease. For example, a person who has an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) and is being monitored by a physician may qualify for a minimally invasive procedure to place a stent in the artery, while a person whose AAA has ruptured will likely require emergency surgery.

So what is interventional radiology doing for the world of minimally invasive treatment? IR often results in less pain and a quicker recovery than traditional surgery. Some IR procedures, like catheter ablation, may even be performed on an outpatient basis. If you have any questions about the risks and benefits of interventional radiology, be sure to ask your doctor.

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