Cryoablation involves applying extremely cold gas or liquid to an area of cancerous or abnormal tissue. The treatment freezes and destroys the cells. Doctors use cryoablation to treat tumors on the skin and some tumors inside the body.

Cryoablation, which doctors also refer to as cryotherapy and cryosurgery, may be used to treat various types of cancer and other abnormal tissue growths.

Doctors can use cryoablation to target cancer cells while avoiding damage to healthy cells. It is often an outpatient procedure.

This article looks at the purpose of cryoablation, what happens during the treatment, and what to expect before and after the treatment. It also discusses how effective cryoablation is and the risks involved.

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Doctors may use cryoablation to destroy cancer cells or other abnormal cells. The procedure may treat various conditions, including:

Doctors may opt for cryoablation if:

  • the cancer does not respond to standard treatments
  • surgeons are unable to remove a tumor, or surgery is not a safe option for someone
  • cancer returns after radiation therapy

They may also use it in combination with other cancer treatments, such as surgery and radiation therapy to help reduce the risk of a tumor returning.

Cryoablation treatments can differ depending on the condition, the area of the body undergoing treatment, and the type of anesthesia a person receives. Doctors may use cryoablation for tumors outside or inside the body.

Cryoablation outside the body

To treat a tumor or abnormal growth on the skin, a doctor may use a local anesthetic to numb the area. They may then apply a cryoprobe, a thin metal tube containing the freezing liquid or gas, directly to the area to freeze and kill the cells. Sometimes, a doctor will apply the freezing gas or liquid with a swab or spray it onto the area.

The doctor will allow the area to thaw and then refreeze it. They may repeat this cycle multiple times.

Cryoablation inside the body

A doctor may perform cryoablation inside the body through a natural opening, such as accessing the cervix via the vagina. They may otherwise use a surgical incision. The doctor will determine whether a person requires local or general anesthesia.

Doctors may monitor the process with imaging equipment, such as an ultrasound. They will insert the tip of the cryoprobe into the opening. They may also insert a thin tube with a camera called a laparoscope. If the tumor is large, they may use multiple cryoprobes.

The doctor will freeze the tumor, allow it to thaw, and then repeat the process.

A doctor will advise a person on how to prepare for cryoablation. A person may need imaging scans before the procedure. Depending on the area that technicians need to scan, they may need to follow certain specific instructions, such as having a full bladder and avoiding eating before the imaging procedure.

A person should tell their doctor about any medications and supplements they are taking before cryoablation. Doctors may advise a person to stop taking blood-thinning medication before the procedure.

For external cryoablation, a person can usually go home after the treatment.

If a person receives the treatment through a surgical incision and under general anesthesia, they might have to remain in bed in the hospital for at least 4 hours after waking while they recover.

Healthcare professionals in the hospital will offer pain relievers if necessary. A person typically goes home the same day as the treatment or, sometimes, the following day.

The success rates of cryoablation as a treatment for specific cancers and precancerous conditions differ. Doctors may use the treatment in combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

The treatment may not be suitable for every stage and type of tumor, and doctors may apply it to specific cases.

Further research is necessary to determine the long-term effects of cryoablation on various cancerous and precancerous conditions.

Older research from the World Health Organization (WHO) states that cryoablation has a higher than 90% success rate. Researchers have also found that cryoablation:

  • had a 96% to 98% success rate in people with kidney cancer in a 2018 study
  • was successful in treating 90% of liver tumors in a 2022 study
  • had a 75.9% success rate as a treatment for early-stage breast cancer for tumors under 2cm in an older study from 2016
  • had a 69% to 83% success rate as a treatment for actinic keratosis depending on freeze time
  • may successfully destroy abnormal cervical cells 85% to 90% of the time

Learn more about the benefits of cryoablation.

The risks of cryoablation can differ depending on the area of treatment, the type of condition doctors are treating, and the severity of the condition.

The treatment may lead to:

Other risks may include side effects in specific areas of the body, such as:

  • Bones: Cryoablation may cause damage and weakness in bone tissue.
  • Cervix: Treating abnormal cervical cells with cryoablation can cause bleeding, cramping, and pain.
  • Liver: Cryoablation of the liver can damage the liver’s blood vessels and bile ducts.
  • Skin: Treating skin tumors with cryoablation can result in nerve damage, hypopigmentation, swelling, and scarring.
  • Prostate: Treating the prostate with cryoablation could lead to incontinence, impotence, rectal damage, and urine blockage.

Below are the answers to some frequently asked questions about cryoablation.

How long does cryoablation last?

The duration of a cryoablation session differs depending on the condition doctors are treating, the size of the tumor or area of treatment, and the part of the body they are treating. The treatment can last for a few minutes to hours.

When does cryoablation wear off?

Cryoablation kills cells so they cannot grow back, but some abnormal cells may remain and spread. Researchers have found that cryoablation for certain types of painful tumors can alleviate pain for 5 to 8 weeks after the procedure.

Why is cryoablation not covered by insurance?

Insurance may not cover cryoablation as a treatment for some conditions, as research into the long-term benefits of the treatment is ongoing. Further evidence is necessary to determine how effective the treatment is over time for cancerous and precancerous conditions.

Read more about Medicare and cryoablation.

Cryoablation is a procedure that involves using an extremely cold gas or liquid to kill cancerous or abnormal cells by freezing them.

Doctors may use cryoablation to treat various cancers, such as skin cancer, kidney cancer, and prostate cancer. It can also treat noncancerous skin growths, such as warts and skin tags.

Cryoablation may cause side effects, such as bleeding, infection, and hypothermia.

Cryoablation is a highly effective treatment for certain conditions, although further research is necessary to determine its long-term effects.