Doctors can use extreme cold to treat a variety of conditions, from moles and warts to tumors.
Maybe you've never heard the term "cryotherapy." But if you've ever had a wart frozen off, or know somebody who has, you're at least slightly familiar with the procedure.
Cryotherapy uses extreme cold in the form of liquid nitrogen or argon gas to kill an unwanted or diseased growth on the skin or inside the body. Apart from warts, it's also used to treat freckles, moles, lesions and genital warts. Inside the body, it may be used to treat tumors in the kidneys, bones, lungs, cervix, prostate, liver and breasts, reports the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
Treatment of a growth on the skin with cryotherapy is usually quick and relatively painless. A doctor may recommend taking ibuprofen a half-hour before the procedure to relieve minor pain, according to the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA). A physician also may give you a dose of antibiotics to help guard against infection.
Surgical treatment, sometimes called cryosurgery, is more involved and may require a short hospital stay.
Such procedures may be performed under general anesthesia, which means you will be unconscious during the operation. To prepare, you'll want to alert your doctor about any prescription or over-the-counter medications you use. This will help reduce the risk of drug interactions and other complications. Women also should alert the doctor if there's any chance that they are pregnant. This will help reduce any risks to the baby.
You also should arrange for a friend or relative to drive you home once you leave the hospital, the RSNA advises.
Cryotherapy used to treat areas on the skin is usually applied with a cotton swab or spray, according to the RSNA.
Inside the body, cryotherapy involves using a thin wand device called a cryoprobe to apply cold to the surface or inside the tumor. The probe and other small instruments are inserted through very small incisions near the tumor site. The surgeon uses an imaging device, such as ultrasound or MRI, to guide the probe to the correct spot. Procedures typically last from one to three hours, according to the RSNA.
Not all tumors can be treated with cryosurgery. For example, the procedure is not useful if cancer has spread to other parts of the body. For cancer, the long-term effectiveness of cryosurgery (as compared to conventional surgery) is still being researched, according to the NCI.
In cases where it's appropriate, cryosurgery often results in shorter hospital stays and quicker recovery. This is due to the small incisions used and less damage done to surrounding tissues than in open surgery to remove a tumor, the RSNA explains. In many cases, a person can resume normal activities within 24 hours of the procedure.
Your doctor can explain if cryotherapy is a good option for you.