A Guide to Cryosurgery Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Catherine Hannan, M.D.
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Cryosurgery uses cold to freeze tissue and destroy it. It is a method doctors can employ to treat cancerous and noncancerous conditions on the skin and inside the body. Cryosurgery has several benefits, including being less invasive than other types of surgery. The technique is also generally very safe. Cryotherapy and cryoablation are other names for cryosurgery.

This article explains cryosurgery’s purpose, the procedure, and the possible risks.

What is cryosurgery?

Doctor using cryotherapy canister
Oksana Samoilenko/Getty Images

Cryosurgery uses extreme cold to destroy cells. It is an alternative to the surgical removal of abnormal or diseased tissue. As it does not involve cutting to remove the tissue, it is less invasive than traditional excisional surgery. Doctors can use it to remove or destroy cancerous and noncancerous tissue.

Although it may sound like a novel way to perform surgery, it has actually been around for nearly 200 yearsModern versions use very cold liquid gases or a cryoprobe instrument to freeze tissue.

The substance that freezes the skin is a cryogen. Liquid nitrogen is the cryogen that doctors most commonly use today. It has a temperature of -320.8°F (-196°C).

Other cryogens include:

  • argon gas
  • carbon dioxide snow
  • dimethyl ether and propane (DMEP)

Doctors can apply the cryogen directly to the skin to treat superficial problems. They usually do this using a spray application or a cotton swab. The cryoprobe allows them to access abnormal tissues inside the body. A cryogen circulating within the cryoprobe provides the freezing temperatures.

Person with gloved hands holding a cryosurgery canister and applicator.
Cryosurgery uses extremely cold liquid or a cryoprobe to freeze and destroy diseased tissue. CasarsaGuru/iStock

When using a cryoprobe, doctors typically rely on imaging to help guide the placement of the probe. This allows them to spare as much healthy tissue as possible. 

As cells thaw and die, they will form a scab on the outside of the body. On the inside, the body will resorb the destroyed tissue.

What are the uses of cryosurgery?

Doctors can treat a variety of diseases with cryosurgery. These include both cancerous and noncancerous conditions. 

Cancers that doctors can remove with cryosurgery include:

  • basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas
  • chondrosarcoma bone cancer
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma
  • liver cancer, when it has not spread outside the liver
  • non-small cell lung cancer
  • prostate cancer, when it is in the early stages
  • retinoblastoma, which is cancer that affects the retina of the eye

Doctors may also recommend cryosurgery for the following noncancerous conditions:

  • benign bone tumors
  • hypertrophic or keloid scars
  • molluscum contagiosum, which is a viral skin infection
  • precancerous actinic keratosis
  • precancerous cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN)
  • seborrheic keratosis, which is a benign skin growth 
  • skin tags
  • solar lentigo, which is a darkened skin patch due to UV light exposure
  • warts

Cryosurgery may be part of an overall treatment plan involving other treatments. Careful follow-up is often necessary, especially when cancer is present.

What are the benefits of cryosurgery?

One of the main benefits of cryosurgery is that it is less invasive than cutting out abnormal tissue. For superficial skin problems, doctors can perform it quickly as an office-based procedure. 

Using a cryoprobe to remove internal tissue is usually an outpatient procedure. Only a small punch or incision is necessary to insert the probe. As a result, this procedure is less painful than traditional surgery and causes less bleeding.

Other benefits include:

  • Anesthesia is generally not necessary for superficial skin problems. Local anesthesia can control pain when necessary.
  • Cryosurgery is generally safe.
  • Cryosurgery may be an option for people who are not candidates for traditional surgery.
  • Cryosurgery spares healthy tissue.
  • Doctors can repeat cryosurgery to achieve the desired results.

What are the side effects of cryosurgery?

As with all procedures, cryosurgery can have side effects and potential complications. The side effects, which are likely to be less severe than those of other treatment options, can include:

  • bleeding
  • blistering
  • cramping, when cervical tissue is the target
  • pain
  • swelling
  • ulceration

Scarring of the skin can occur as the area heals.

Although complications are less likely, they are possible. The most common complication is loss of skin pigmentation, which may be permanent.

Other possible complications include:

  • depressed scars and other tissue distortions
  • hair loss in the area
  • healing problems
  • local nerve damage or numbness
  • wound infection

There are also potential side effects and complications specific to the area undergoing cryosurgery, such as the prostate or liver. It is best to talk with your doctor and ask what can happen with the particular cryosurgery you are considering.

Who are good candidates for dermatologic cryosurgery?

Cryosurgery can be a simple and effective treatment for a variety of dermatologic conditions. Most people tolerate the procedure well.

However, there are some situations in which this procedure is not the best choice. Generally, doctors do not recommend cryosurgery for the following:

  • circulation problems at the site
  • lesions that require pathology evaluation or do not have a diagnosis
  • melanoma
  • people who have had adverse reactions to cryosurgery in the past
  • people with dark skin, due to the risk of hypopigmentation
  • young children

Doctors also do not recommend cryosurgery for people with conditions that worsen with cold. These conditions include:

Summary

Cryosurgery is an old technique that has many modern uses. Its use is common in dermatology, as it can remove abnormal tissue from the skin.

Other uses include removing both cancerous and noncancerous lesions from inside and outside the body. For superficial conditions, cryosurgery offers a quick, simple, and generally safe option. Cryosurgery is often less invasive for removing internal tumors and growths and carries less risk than traditional surgery.

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Medical Reviewer: Catherine Hannan, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 16
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