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Interventional radiology, also known as IR, is an innovative, minimally-invasive way to diagnose and treat myriad health concerns from cancer to peripheral arterial disease, portal hypertension to stroke, women’s health conditions to trauma, and much more – all without the use of major surgery. Interventional radiology techniques allow highly specialized doctors to look inside your body with real-time imaging technologies such as fluoroscopy, ultrasound, and CT and use those modalities to guide tiny instruments to the site of concern. Once there, tiny metallic stents, platinum coils, or medicines such as clot-busting drugs or chemotherapy agents can be deposited exactly where they’re needed without risking surrounding structures or needing large incisions. If you’ve ever had an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI done, these are typical technologies used in interventional radiology. In IR, we typically work through a single tiny incision that’s so small it doesn’t even require stitches! 

What Is the Purpose of Interventional Radiology?

If this term has never crossed your vocabulary, you’re not alone and you may be wondering why it’s necessary since you haven’t heard of it. Interventional radiologists are “Doctor’s doctors.” When the field emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, we were asked to help with the toughest patients when regular therapies had failed or patients were too sick for traditional open surgery. As science, technology, and medicine have progressed, however, IR now has dual roles – as a “special forces” kind of specialty that gets called in for the most difficult and unorthodox challenges, as well as being a mainstream treatment modality to evaluate and manage patients with everything from cancer to uterine fibroids to aortic aneurysms. In cases where the body can be treated without undergoing the additional and often unnecessary stress and recovery of major surgery, IR acts as a wonderful solution. Not surprisingly, this type of treatment lowers the risks and complications that major surgeries sometimes have, often requires no hospitalization, and allows for a faster and less painful recovery. Because of these combined factors, IR has actually become the preferred choice amongst both patients and doctors as the primary method for treating many conditions.

Oncologic (cancer) therapy is one of the most promising and exciting areas of interventional radiology. While IRs treat many different types of cancer, the most common are in the liver, lung, kidney, and bone. Interventional radiologists attack the cancer directly by advancing a tiny catheter directly to the site of the tumor and infusing chemotherapy, radioactive beads, or other agents directly into the tumor, killing the cancer without causing whole-body side effects. Alternatively, IRs can insert one or more needles into a tumor through a tiny incision (just like a biopsy) and then use thermal energy to kill the tumor. This technique can often be as effective as having major surgery to remove the tumor. Most patients treated for cancer either go home the same day or stay in the hospital just one night. 

What Happens During Interventional Radiology?

Interventional radiologists are imaging experts so before your procedure, they’ll review all the imaging tests you’ve had, such as X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and ultrasounds and determine if you’re a candidate for a minimally-invasive procedure and which imaging modality is the best method to use for your procedure. You will come to IR the day of your procedure which can be in a hospital or an outpatient setting, depending on the procedure, and the physician will use imaging to make a tiny incision to perform your procedure. Most procedures can be done without the need for general anesthesia, simply using moderate sedation (similar to what’s used for a colonoscopy). Most procedures take 1-2 hours and patients typically go home the same day after a short observation period. IR patients can expect to be back to their normal routines within just a few days of the procedure.

For over 50 years, interventional radiology has been at the forefront of healthcare innovation. IR professionals are constantly discovering and creating new techniques to treat life-altering diseases in ways that help patients get back to health quickly and without post-procedural pain so they can get back to doing what they love.