Cryosurgery

Written by Brian Krans | Published on August 7, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is Cryosurgery?

Cryosurgery is a type of surgery that uses extreme cold to destroy abnormal tissue, such as tumors.

The surgery uses liquid nitrogen. When liquid nitrogen has a temperature between

-346 and -320 degrees Fahrenheit, it instantly freezes nearly anything it comes in contact with. In the case of human tissue, it can kill and destroy cells upon contact. This is important when the cells you want to kill are cancerous.

Typically used for tumors outside the body, cryosurgery is also used for certain tumors inside the body. Advances in cryosurgery technology have dramatically reduced the long-term side effects once associated with the treatment. The National Cancer Institute, however, claims that more studies are needed on the long-term side effects and effectiveness of cryosurgery (NCI).

Cryosurgery, also called cryotherapy, is similar to the technique used when doctors freeze off warts.

Why Cryosurgery Is Performed

Cryosurgery is used to destroy problem tissues in the body. In most cases of cancer, it is not the first line of defense. However, it can be used when other forms of treatment have proven unsuccessful, especially if the cancer has returned following other treatments.

Cryosurgery is most often performed to treat tumors on the skin. It is, however, used on some internal organs, such as the liver, when disease and other problems make conventional surgery difficult or risky.

Cryosurgery is used as the primary treatment for early prostate cancer that is contained in the prostate. It is also performed when cancer returns after other therapies.

Risks Associated With Cryosurgery

Cryosurgery does have risks and side effects, but they are considered lower than other cancer treatments, such as surgery and radiation, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Risks associated with cryosurgery include:

  • blisters
  • damage to nearby healthy tissue
  • infection
  • loss of sensation if nerves are affected
  • pain
  • scarring
  • sexual dysfunction
  • ulcers
  • white skin where applied

How to Prepare for a Cryosurgery

Your preparation for cryosurgery depends on the type of cryosurgery being performed. Cryosurgery for skin cancer—the main reason cryosurgery is used—requires little preparation on the part of the patient.

If your doctor will be treating an internal organ with cryosurgery, you will typically be given the same instructions given before traditional surgery. You will be asked to fast 12 hours beforehand and arrange for a ride home from the procedure.

Prior to the procedure, inform your doctor if you have an allergy to anesthesia, as well as any and all medicine you are taking, including over-the-counter medications and nutritional supplements.

Your doctor will provide you with complete preparation instructions. It is important that you follow them.

How a Cryosurgery Is Performed

Your doctor will place liquid nitrogen on your skin using a cotton swab or spray. A numbing medicine may be used to prevent any pain or discomfort.

If an internal area is being treated, your surgeon will use a scope, which is a flexible tube that can fit into various openings in your body, such as the urethra, rectum, or a surgical incision. The liquid nitrogen is fed to the area under treatment and applied to the targeted cells. The cells freeze and die and then will be slowly absorbed by your body.

Your doctor will use imaging equipment, such as an ultrasound, as a guide for carrying out the procedure.

Following Up After Cryosurgery

After most cryosurgeries, you can go home the same day. Some surgeries, namely complicated internal ones, may require an overnight stay.

After the procedure, you’ll be tasked with caring for any incision wounds or places where skin has been frozen. Your doctor will give you instructions for these, but care typically involves keeping the area free of contaminants and changing the bandages to prevent infection.

You will have follow-up appointments where your doctor will determine how successful your treatment was, if there were any complications, and whether you will need more cryotherapy.

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