What is cryosurgery?

Cryosurgery or cryotherapy involves using extreme cold — usually liquid nitrogen or sometimes carbon dioxide or argon gas — to "freeze off" abnormal cells, such as a tumor.

The therapy is commonly used externally for skin growths, such as warts and skin tags, and cancerous cells such as basal and squamous cell carcinoma. It may be used internally for abnormal cell growth and tumors that are difficult to treat with other therapies or because the patient is unable to tolerate other types of treatments.

Cryosurgery is commonly used to treat cancers of the prostate and the cervix as well as retinoblastoma, a type of eye cancer often diagnosed during childhood.

How does cryosurgery work?

For skin issues, a doctor applies extreme cold — typically from liquid nitrogen — directly onto the skin growths using a cotton tip. This method freezes off the abnormal cells.

For internal use, a special instrument called a cryoprobe is carefully placed inside the body through a small cut or an opening (like the rectum or vagina). The doctor uses MRI or ultrasound images to guide the cryoprobe to the precise location of the abnormal cells. The cryoprobe then creates ice crystals that freeze the targeted cells, sparing the healthy surrounding tissue.

Benefits of cryosurgery

Compared to traditional surgeries, cryosurgery results in less damage to healthy tissue, allowing for a quicker recovery time. In fact, many patients report minimal discomfort during and after the procedure, making it a less painful option.

Additionally, cryosurgery is highly versatile and can be used to treat both external and internal abnormalities. This makes it a viable option for a wide range of medical conditions.

What to expect during cryosurgery recovery

Depending on the type of procedure, you may only need local anesthesia or a combination of local and general (where you are asleep during the procedure). Or you may have IV anesthesia that puts you in a drowsy state where you won't feel anything.

Cryosurgery is generally not painful although you may experience some discomfort at the treatment or incision site. For cervical cryotherapy, you may experience some cramping and pressure as the cryoprobe is guided to the cells being treated. For external treatments, the spot that was treated will scab over and generally falls off within a few days. If internal, the damaged tissue that was frozen will thaw and get absorbed within the body.

There’s not much you need to do to prepare for cryosurgery. However, if your treatment requires general anesthesia, avoid eating or drinking for 12 hours before your procedure. Your doctor will provide detailed instructions based on your specific situation.


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