A Guide to Cryosurgery Treatments
This article explains cryosurgery’s purpose, the procedure, and the possible risks.
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.
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.
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.
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
Cryosurgery may be part of an overall treatment plan involving other treatments. Careful follow-up is often necessary, especially when cancer is present.
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.
- cramping, when cervical tissue is the target
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.
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
- 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:
- cold urticaria
- multiple myeloma
- Raynaud’s disease
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.