What is cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy is a treatment where your healthcare provider applies extreme cold to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue. To create this severe cold, your provider will use a substance like liquid nitrogen or argon gas.
Cryotherapy can be used to treat a variety of skin conditions and some cancers, including prostate and liver cancer. This therapy can treat tissue externally (on the skin) and internally (inside the body).
This treatment can also be called cryoablation.
Why do doctors use cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy is a minimally invasive therapy. This type of treatment removes damaged or diseased tissue that comes from a variety of medical conditions. Cryotherapy is usually done without open surgery. Most people recover quickly from the procedure and with little pain. Your provider might recommend cryotherapy for:
- Bone cancer.
- Cervical cancer, liver cancer or prostate cancer.
- Precancerous cells in the cervix (lower end of the uterus).
- Precancerous skin conditions and early-stage skin cancers, including squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.
- Retinoblastoma (cancer of the retina in children).
- Skin conditions like warts, skin tags or dark spots.
How does cryotherapy work?
During cryotherapy, the healthcare provider applies extreme cold to abnormal tissue. Cells can’t survive this severe cold and die after treatment.
Your healthcare provider can use a few different substances to create the intense cold used in cryotherapy. These substances can include:
- Liquid nitrogen.
- Liquid nitrous oxide.
- Argon gas.
What cryotherapy method will my healthcare provider use?
There are different cryotherapy methods to freeze tissue. The way your healthcare provider applies the cold depends on the location of the abnormal tissue.
- External: If the tissue is located on your skin, your provider will typically use a spraying device or a cotton swab to apply the freezing agent.
- Internal: To treat conditions inside the body, like precancerous cells or a tumor, your provider will use an instrument called a cryoprobe. This probe is inserted through a small incision (cut) in your skin.
External cryotherapy causes frozen skin to blister and peel off so that healthy new skin can grow. When abnormal cells freeze and die during internal cryotherapy, your immune system helps clear the tissue out of the body.
How should I prepare for cryotherapy?
Most people don’t need to do anything special to prepare for cryotherapy on the skin. Your healthcare provider will give you instructions before internal cryotherapy to help you prepare.
You may have to stop taking certain medications, such as aspirin or blood thinners, a few days before internal cryosurgery. Other special instructions may include:
- Limiting how much you eat or drink before the procedure.
- Planning for someone to drive you home after the procedure.
What should I expect during cryotherapy?
If you have external cryotherapy, your healthcare provider will apply the cold with a spraying device or cotton swab. Providers usually use liquid nitrogen for this type of treatment.
For internal cryotherapy, the cryoprobe is inserted through a small incision in your skin. Your healthcare provider may use ultrasound imaging to guide the cryoprobe to the tissue to be frozen.
Depending on the location of the abnormal cells, you may be given either local anesthesia or general anesthesia. Local anesthesia works to numb a specific spot, while a general anesthesia is used during surgeries to put you to sleep.
What should I expect after cryotherapy?
If you have cryotherapy for an external skin condition, the treated area will turn red and possibly blister after treatment. Any mild pain should be gone after about three days. The treated area will form a scab, which usually heals in one to three weeks.
After internal cryotherapy, you may have mild pain or soreness in the affected area for up to three days. Women who have cryotherapy on the cervix may have a watery discharge for a few days to a few weeks.
Risks / Benefits
What are the pros and cons of cryotherapy?
Cryosurgery is a minimally invasive treatment. Compared to traditional surgery, it usually has less pain and bleeding and a lower risk of damaging healthy tissue near the abnormal cells.
The risks of cryotherapy are small, but complications can occur. These complications may include:
- Bleeding, cramping or pain after cryotherapy around the cervix.
- Bone fractures.
- Nerve damage resulting in loss of feeling.
- Swelling, scarring and skin infection.
Recovery and Outlook
What is the outlook for people who have cryotherapy?
Healthcare providers successfully treat many problems with cryotherapy. Most skin conditions treated with cryotherapy do not require any special care after treatment.
Some people who have internal cryotherapy need to limit their activity for a few days after the procedure. Your provider will let you know when you can return to your regular routine. You may need more than one cryotherapy treatment to remove all the abnormal tissue.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I call my doctor?
Contact your healthcare provider if you have signs of an infection after cryotherapy. These signs may include:
- Unexplained fever.
You should also see your provider if you still notice a skin issue after you heal from cryotherapy.