What is cryosurgery?
Cryosurgery is a procedure that uses freezing gas (liquid nitrogen) to destroy precancerous cells on the cervix. The cervix, the lowest part of the womb or uterus, opens into the vagina. When these unhealthy cells are destroyed, the body can replace them with new, healthy cells.
Cryosurgery, sometimes referred to as “cryo” or “cryotherapy,” is also used to treat some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like genital warts.
Cryosurgery is performed in your doctor’s office while you’re awake. The procedure usually takes around 10 minutes.
Ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter pain medication before the procedure to lessen cramping during cryosurgery. The procedure can make some women feel light-headed, so it’s a good idea to arrange to have someone drive you home. Make sure to bring a menstrual pad to the doctor’s office with you. Watery discharge is common after this procedure.
When you arrive for your appointment, a nurse or a technician will give you a hospital gown and instruct you to undress from the waist down. You’ll then lie down on the examination table with your feet in stirrups, just as if you were getting a regular Pap smear.
The doctor will then put a speculum into your vagina to spread the vaginal walls. They may also examine your cervix with a device called a colposcope. This allows better visualization to ensure that all of the abnormal cells have been identified.
Your doctor will then insert an instrument called a cryoprobe into your vagina and press it against your cervix. Nitrogen gas at a temperature of about -50ºC/-58ºF chills the metal and creates an “ice ball” on the cervix. The ice ball kills the abnormal cells. During this part of the procedure, you may experience some chills or cramping.
For best results, your doctor will hold the cryoprobe against the cervix for three minutes. They will then remove it for about five minutes to allow thawing to occur, and then repeat the procedure.
Your doctor will schedule a Pap smear for three to six months after the procedure to make sure the abnormal cells have been destroyed and haven’t recurred. You may need to be monitored yearly or more frequently after that. According to Planned Parenthood, cryosurgery has a success rate of about 85 to 90 percent. If the abnormal cells are still present after three to six months, your doctor may recommend a different gynecological procedure.
Generally, you’ll be able to return to your normal activities as soon as the cryosurgery is over. Your doctor will ask you not to douche, use tampons, or engage in vaginal intercourse for two to three weeks following cryosurgery. This gives the cervix time to heal.
If you take birth control pills, continue taking them on schedule.
For the first week or two after cryosurgery, you may notice watery or blood-streaked vaginal discharge. Don’t be alarmed. This is your body’s way of ridding itself of old, dead cells.
The most common risk of cryosurgery is mild cramping during the procedure.
Immediately after cryosurgery, some women experience dizziness upon standing up. Let your doctor or nurse know if this happens to you. A few minutes of rest should relieve this symptom.
Some rare complications of cryosurgery include:
- heavy vaginal bleeding
- a flare-up of an existing pelvic infection
- freeze burns on the vagina
The procedure puts you at a slight risk for bleeding and infection because foreign objects are being inserted into the vagina. Contact your doctor or go to an emergency room if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- high fever
- unusual, foul-smelling vaginal discharge
- abdominal pain
In rare cases, cryosurgery may cause scarring on the cervix, also known as cervical stenosis. This condition may make it difficult for you to get pregnant, stay pregnant, or deliver vaginally. If you experience this, you’ll be followed more closely during any later pregnancies. Cervical stenosis may also cause increased cramping during normal menstrual bleeding.
Be sure to tell your doctor if you’re pregnant. Unless they believe there’s no alternative, it’s unwise to undergo cervical cryosurgery if you’re expecting. In most cases, you can carry your pregnancy to full term and then have cryosurgery.
Precancerous cells grow slowly. Your doctor can do regular examinations to make sure there are no abnormal changes.