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What is Cryosurgery?

By A. B. Kelsey
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Cryosurgery, sometimes called cryotherapy, is the process of using the extremely cold temperatures produced by liquid nitrogen or argon gas in a controlled fashion in order to destroy abnormal or diseased tissue. Cryosurgery is usually an effective process because the freezing temperatures cause ice crystals to form inside of the selected tissue, causing the abnormal cells to tear apart.

For external skin problems, cryosurgery can be a highly effective, quick treatment requiring no recovery time. Liquid nitrogen is applied directly to the abnormal cells with a cotton swab or a spraying device, thereby deadening the skin which will later fall off all on its own. Cryosurgery is the most common way physicians get rid of warts, moles, and skin tags. Small patches of skin cancer and precancerous skin cells are also candidates for successful cryosurgical treatment.

Cryosurgery can also be used to treat internal disorders. Prostate cancer, cervical disorders, liver cancer, and even hemorrhoids have all been effectively treated with cryosurgery. Cryosurgery is currently being evaluated as a treatment for several other cancers, including colon, kidney, and breast cancer. Researchers are also evaluating the effectiveness of cryosurgery when used in conjunction with other cancer treatments such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy.

To treat internal conditions, liquid nitrogen or argon gas is circulated through a hollow tube called a cryoprobe, which is placed in contact with the problem area. A ball of ice crystals forms around the probe, freezing the nearby cells. After cryosurgery, the frozen tissue thaws and is naturally absorbed by the body.

Cryosurgery can have side effects, but they tend to be less severe than the risks associated with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery. Side effects vary depending on where the tumor is located. If the cervix is treated, a woman can experience some bleeding, pain, or cramping. If skin cancer is treated, the patient may have swelling, scarring, or a burning sensation in the treated area. If the process is used to treat tumors of the bone, cryosurgery could cause nearby bone tissue to be destroyed or fractured.

Despite these risks, cryosurgery has many advantages. It is far less invasive than traditional surgical methods, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy and far less expensive as well. Physicians are able to focus the cryosurgical treatment on the problem area only, thereby limiting the destruction of healthy tissue. Cryosurgery is becoming increasingly popular with patients who are not good candidates for traditional surgical methods because of age or other medical conditions.

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Discussion Comments
By anon314284 — On Jan 17, 2013

I had cryosurgery on my cervix in may 2012. I don't think I have healed. Is this possible?

By Valencia — On Jun 14, 2011

My father was recently offered the option of having prostate surgery using a cryosurgery procedure. The doctors gave him a clear and detailed run down of what it involved beforehand.

Perhaps it was too much information, as he refused, claiming it sounded 'like something from a science fiction novel'. Terms like cyroprobes, argon gas and helium gas are all alien to him, so it does sound pretty scary.

I can understand his feelings. Right now this isn't a very established field, so the side effects and risks seemed too much for him. I later found out that there is a very high chance of permanent impotency, plus possible rectal damage.

He did have traditional surgery and seems to have made a full recovery.

By strawCake — On Jun 14, 2011

@JaneAir - I had cryosurgery to remove a wart not too long ago and it was still much cheaper than the laser! I guess some thing don't change. Cryosurgery can be used to treat a lot of other things besides just warts though.

My sister in law had cervical cryosurgery for precancerous cells a few weeks ago. The cryosurgery worked really well for her too but I remember she did experience a lot of the unpleasant side effects and spent the next few days in bed recovering.

By JaneAir — On Jun 14, 2011

I had cryosurgery treatment on a wart about ten years ago. It did hurt, but it was very effective and much cheaper than getting the laser. I'm sure the lasers have come down in price some since then but at the time it was too much.

I had no idea cryosurgery could be used for anything besides warts though. It would be wonderful if scientists could develop cryosurgery further for treating cancer because the side effects of cryosurgery don't sound as bad as chemotherapy side effects.

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