What Is an Ablation?

Procedures that remove a layer of tissue

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An ablation is a medical procedure that removes a layer of tissue, either by surgery or via less invasive techniques. It's used to treat a variety of medical conditions ranging from serious to cosmetic. In some cases, ablation destroys problem tissues. In others, it encourages tissue regrowth in order to restore function.

Surgeons performing surgery in operating room
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Surface Ablation

Surface ablation can be performed on the skin, eye, or other surface tissues. Many procedures are used for many different purposes.

Skin

Surface ablation of the skin involves the removal of a layer of tissue to:

  • Treat discoloration
  • Improve skin texture
  • Remove superficial lesions, warts, or tumors

When used for cosmetic purposes to induce skin regeneration, it is referred to as dermabrasion and is typically performed by a dermatologist in a medical office. Techniques used for skin ablation include:

  • Laser ablation: A laser is used primarily for superficial lesions or discoloration
  • Chemoablation: Topical acids are used to peel skin or remove warts
  • Cryoablation: Cold gases like liquid nitrogen or argon freeze the skin
  • Fulguration: High-frequency electrical currents remove small lesions or warts

Eye

Eye laser treatments used to treat nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism are another form of surface ablation.

The technique, also known as Lasik surgery, removes the surface cells of the cornea to reshape it and correct your vision. Eye laser treatments are performed by ophthalmologists (eye surgeons) in medical facilities.

Ear, Nose, and Throat

Surface ablation can also be applied to otolaryngologic procedures involving the ear, nose, or throat. One such procedure strips away excess soft palate tissue to treat snoring or sleep apnea. Other procedures may be performed on the sinuses, tonsils, and thyroid nodules.

Ablation vs. Resection

An ablation differs from a resection, which involves the partial or complete removal of an organ. An ablation, by contrast, is meant to remove a layer (or layers) of tissue with the aim of restoring normal function.

Cardiac Ablation

Cardiac ablation is a technique primarily used to correct problems with the heart rhythm (arrhythmias). The procedure destroys heart tissue in order to block specific nerve pathways, which stops the electrical signals that trigger arrhythmias.

Cardiac ablation is typically performed by cardiologists in a hospital setting. They insert a thin, flexible tube (called a catheter) through a vein or artery in the groin and thread it up to the heart. Then energy is used to either freeze or burn the area of tissue.

Commonly referred to a catheter ablation, this technique can be used to treat arrhythmias of both the atria (upper chambers) or ventricles (lower chambers) of the heart, including:

  • Atrial flutter ablation (involving the atria)
  • Pulmonary vein isolation (involving the atria)
  • Supraventricular tachycardia ablation (involving the atria)
  • Ventricular tachycardia ablation (involving the ventricles)

A similar technique can be applied to arterial blockages that don't respond to standard balloon angioplasty. Known as rotoatherectomy, the procedure involves the use of a tiny, diamond-tipped drill that removes fatty deposits and restores blood flow.

Endometrial Ablation

Endometrial ablation is a minimally invasive procedure that destroys the endometrium (lining of the uterus). The aim of the procedure is to reduce or stop heavy menstrual bleeding. It's typically performed by gynecologists in a medical facility.

For all types of endometrial ablations, instruments are inserted through the vagina and into the uterus. Several techniques are in use, including:

  • High-energy radiofrequency: An expanded mesh delivers electrical current created by radio waves
  • Thermal balloon ablation: A balloon is filled with fluid that's 190 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Microwave endometrial ablation (MEA): Microwave energy travels into the uterus through a thin probe
  • Cryoablation: A probe uses -4 degree F temperatures to freeze the lining

Endometrial ablation isn't a form of birth control or sterilization. You still ovulate afterward and pregnancy is possible, though unlikely because the fertilized egg doesn't have the endometrium to implant in.

You shouldn't have an endometrial ablation if you want to have children in the future. If you do get pregnant after an ablation, you have a significantly increased risk of ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, and the death of the baby (either before or after birth).

Because you still ovulate, though, pregnancy is possible. Talk to your doctor about options such as birth control or sterilization surgery when you're considering an ablation.

Other Types of Ablation

Ablation has many other uses as well, including:

  • Bone marrow ablation: Commonly used to remove bone marrow in advance of a bone marrow transplant; performed with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation.
  • Ablative brain surgery: Used to treat certain neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease and cluster headaches.
  • Venous ablation: Removal of the saphenous vein in the leg to eliminate varicose veins or a condition called venous reflux.

A Word From Verywell

Most types of ablation can be used for multiple purposes, and the preparation and recovery can be different for each of them. Be sure your practitioner goes over these issues with you so you know what to expect.

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Additional Reading
  • Safavi-Naeini P, Rasekh A. Update on atrial fibrillationTex Heart Inst J. 2016;43(5):412-414. Published 2016 Oct 1. doi:10.14503/THIJ-16-5916