What is Cryosurgery?

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The use of cryogenic technology and its many applications is rapidly advancing and leading to tremendous innovation. 

One of those areas of innovation is in medicine with the growing use of something called cryosurgery. 

The following are things to know about the medical uses of cryosurgery right now and how this technology is affecting the medical world. 

What is Cryosurgery?

Cryosurgery is a treatment using extreme cold. The cold is produced by liquid nitrogen, or it can also be made by argon gas. It destroys cancer cells and abnormal tissue. 

Cryosurgery is classified as a local treatment. In medicine, local treatment is directed at just a particular part of your body. Cryosurgery is mainly used to treat skin tumors and sometimes tumors inside the body. You may also hear it called cryotherapy or cryoablation. 

When liquid nitrogen has a temperature between -346 degrees and -320 degrees, it freezes anything it contacts instantly. With human tissue, that means it can kill cancer cells or precancerous lesions.

The technique is similar to what happens when a doctor freezes off a wart with a liquid nitrogen spray. 

While cryosurgery is most often for skin lesions that are cancerous or precancerous, it might be used on organs like the liver if traditional surgery could be too risky or difficult. 

Cryosurgery is almost the first course of action in many cases for early prostate cancer if it’s contained within the prostate. It may also be used if cancer returns following the use of other forms of surgery. 

How is Cryosurgery Done?

A doctor can put liquid nitrogen on your skin with a spray or cotton swap. If there’s an internal area being treated, the surgeon will use a scope. A scope is a flexible tube that can fit into openings of your body. The doctor will feed the liquid nitrogen to the area being treated. The cells freeze and die, and then your body will gradually absorb them. 

During internal cryosurgeries, doctors use imaging equipment such as an ultrasound to see where they’re working. 

Following most types of cryosurgery, you can go home that same day. If the surgery was on an organ, you might have to stay in the hospital overnight or for a couple of days. 

How Does It Work?

We’ve touched generally on how cryosurgery works, but below, we go more into the details:

  • Cryotherapy destroys diseased tissue in extremely cold temperatures. 
  • Whether healthy or diseased, living tissue can’t withstand very cold temperatures. 
  • Cells can die from ice formation in the fluid outside of the cells, leading to what’s known as cellular dehydration. 
  • Cells can also die from ice formation within the cell. At temperatures that are -40 degrees and lower, ice crystals form within cells, then destroy them. 
  • Sometimes the cell death occurs because ice expands inside the cell and causes it to burst, or it might shrink because water exits it. 
  • Another way cells can die via this method is through a loss of blood supply. Cells die when their blood supply is choked off because ice forms within the tumor’s blood vessels, causing clotting. 
  • Since cryotherapy includes several steps leading to cell death, a tumor may be repeatedly frozen and then thawed. 
  • After the cells die, the immune system’s white blood cells will clear out the dead tissue. 

Cryosurgery can be used with other cancer therapies, including hormone therapy, immunotherapy, radiation, and chemotherapy. Sometimes this surgery will be used after traditional surgery to reduce the risk of a tumor coming back. 

The Benefits of Cryosurgery

Some of the benefits of this particular type of surgery include:

  • If you’re receiving this treatment for tumors that are inside your body, usually only a small cut or puncture is needed. Then, the probe can be inserted, reducing pain, bleeding, and other problems linked to conventional surgery. 
  • Usually, this type of surgery can be done without local anesthesia and may not require a hospital stay. 
  • Since it’s considered a localized treatment, a doctor can treat a precise area, reducing damage to nearby healthy tissue. 
  • The surgery can be repeated safely and combined with other treatments. 
  • This type of surgery may be used when people can’t have surgery because of age or other health problems or when tumors couldn’t otherwise be removed with surgery. 
  • It may be an option when someone’s cancer doesn’t respond to standard treatment. 

The big downside of this surgery is that in some cases, a doctor might not know how well it will end up controlling cancer or how it can improve survival rates over the long term. It may not always be covered by insurance, and it can only be used for tumors that a doctor can see with an imaging test. 

Currently, researchers are looking at this type of surgery as a treatment for oral cancer and precancerous oral conditions, colon cancer, and breast, pancreatic and kidney cancers. 

What Are the Side Effects?

Cryotherapy may cause side effects, but they tend to be less severe than other local types of treatment like traditional surgery or radiation. Side effects depend on the part of the body that’s treated. For example, if cryosurgery is used to treat cervical cells, side effects may include pain, cramping, or bleeding. 

If the surgery is used for a skin tumor, it could cause scarring and swelling. Sometimes it can cause nerve damage, leading to a loss of feeling. 

If cryosurgery is used to treat liver tumors, it could damage major blood vessels or bile ducts.

When used for prostate cancer, it could block urine flow or cause impotence or incontinence and rectum damage. People who also had radiation therapy to the prostate are more likely to experience cryosurgery side effects.  

While it’s still being studied, cryosurgery has a lot of promising benefits for the treatment of cancer and precancerous conditions. 

For simple cryosurgeries, they may be done in a doctor’s office. A few hospitals and cancer centers in the U.S. have skilled doctors and high-tech machinery required for more complex cryo procedures. 

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