Cryosurgery, also called cryotherapy or cryoablation, is a procedure in which extreme cold produced by liquid nitrogen is used to destroy abnormal tissue. An alternative to traditional surgery and its drawbacks, cryosurgery is used to treat tumors in the kidney, lung, liver, breast, prostate, cervix and bone, and on the skin.
For internal cancers, liquid nitrogen is circulated through a hollow needle, called a cryoprobe, that is inserted through a small incision, and then placed into the cancerous tissue. A CT scan and ultrasound provide guidance for proper placement of the probe. When it is inserted, ice crystals form around the probe, freezing nearby cells. After surgery, the cells thaw and are absorbed by the body. For treatment of skin lesions, liquid nitrogen is either sprayed on the area or applied with a cotton swab. The frozen tissue dissolves and a scab forms. For internal cancers, the procedure may require general anesthesia, and last for a few hours. To ensure complete removal of cancerous tissue, cryosurgery may be combined with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
It may also be used to treat retinoblastoma, a childhood cancer that affects the retina.
Cryosurgery usually means patients have less pain, shorter hospital stays and recovery times, and fewer complications than they would with more-invasive traditional surgery.
There is uncertainty surrounding cryosurgery’s long-term effectiveness. It may be effective in treating tumors that can be seen using imaging tests, but may miss microscopic cancers.