What Is Interventional Radiology?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on February 12, 2024
4 min read

Interventional radiology (IR) is a way to diagnose and treat cancer and other conditions without major surgery.

With IR, your doctor looks inside your body with imaging tests such as ultrasounds, CT scans, or MRIs. Then they use small tools, like needles and tubes, to do a procedure or give treatment right where you need it.

During these procedures, your doctor can put tools into your body through tiny cuts that can be as small as a pinhole.

Interventional radiology helps with cancer in a number of ways. It can directly treat the disease, prevent bleeding during surgery, and ease pain and cancer treatment side effects.

Your doctor can use interventional radiology to put cancer-killing therapies like chemotherapy and radioactive medicines directly onto tumors and cancer cells.

Doctors can also kill tumors or cancer cells by heating them up with radio waves or electric currents, or freezing them with ice crystals. At the same time that they are treating the tumor, they can cut off blood flow to it as a second way of damaging tumors and cancer cells.

Interventional radiologists can also treat side effects of cancer treatment like blood clots and fluid buildup in your body.

Interventional radiology vs. chemotherapy

Doctors use interventional radiology along with chemotherapy to remove or shrink tumors. You may have it if other treatments haven't worked or if you can't have surgery. 

Your interventional radiologist will use a CT scan, MRI, or ultrasound to get a good look at the part of your body they need to treat.

Next, they put a tool such as a needle, catheter (a tube), or wire into your body through a small cut. They watch a screen as they place the tool through your body to reach the area that needs treatment.

The kinds of imaging and tools they use depend on your specific condition. You might be sedated during treatment, which means you'll get medicine to make you relax and ease pain. But you most likely won't need general anesthesia, which is medicine that lets you sleep during the procedure.

Interventional radiology does two important things at once. It lets your doctor get direct access to the part of your body that needs treatment. It also makes it less likely that you'll get risky side effects from treatment or surgery.

This is especially important in cancer treatment with radioactive particles or chemotherapy, strong treatments that can damage healthy parts of you when they are sent through your whole body. Interventional radiology lets doctors put these treatments directly on tumors and not on the healthy tissue around them.

Another benefit is that with an interventional radiology procedure, you often don't need to stay overnight in a hospital.


Interventional radiology isn't just for people with cancer. Here are some other uses for this treatment:

Interventional radiology for blood vessel issues 

Doctors also use it for problems with blood vessels, such as:

Interventional radiology for kidney disease

IR is also a way to treat diseases of the kidney, including:

  • Accessing your veins during dialysis
  • Diagnosing kidney failure
  • Kidney stone removal

Interventional radiology for gallstones

If you have gallstones, surgery may not be right for you, especially if you have many medical problems. Instead, doctors can use IR to remove the stones without anesthesia.

Interventional radiology for uterine fibroids

Uterine fibroids are growths in your uterus that need blood to grow. Without blood, they may shrink or die. To treat them without surgery, doctors can do a procedure called embolization, which releases tiny particles to block the blood vessels feeding the fibroid, causing it to shrink.

Interventional radiology to place central lines

Health care professionals also use IR to place central lines – IVs that go deep into your body to deliver medicine.

Doctors may use IR to guide these procedures:

Image-guided biopsies

Doctors specializing in IR use image-guided biopsy to make difficult diagnoses like cancer, liver disease, kidney disease, and infectious disease.

Kyphoplasty and vertebroplasty

These image-guided procedures, which require smaller cuts, help to stabilize compression fractures by putting bone cement in compacted bones in your spine.

Nephrostomy placement

This is the positioning of a catheter through the skin of your back or side into your kidney to drain urine and get rid of kidney stones.

Tumor embolization

Embolization cuts off the blood supply to a tumor, lessening the loss of blood during surgery.

Percutaneous tumor ablation

Doctors guide special needles into a tumor using ultrasound, CT, or both. The needles use techniques including heat, cold, or rapid-pulsed electricity to destroy the tumor without the need for major surgery.

Transarterial chemo-embolization (TACE)

This procedure combines chemotherapy with embolization to treat cancer, usually of the liver, but also in other parts of your body.

Interventional radiology has a shorter recovery time than other treatments like chemotherapy. You could leave the hospital on the same day as your procedure.

Interventional radiology (IR) is a medical approach to diagnosing and treating conditions like cancer without the need for major surgery. Doctors use imaging tests such as ultrasounds, CT scans, or MRIs to guide them during procedures where they use small tools, like needles and tubes, inserted through tiny cuts in the body. IR works well in cancer treatment, allowing doctors to directly target tumors with therapies like chemotherapy and radio waves, while lessening damage to healthy tissue.