Cryosurgery (cryotherapy) is the application of extreme cold to destroy abnormal or diseased tissue. The term comes from the Greek words cryo (κρύο) ("icy cold") and surgery (cheirourgiki – χειρουργική) meaning "hand work" or "handiwork". Cryosurgery has been historically used to treat a number of diseases and disorders, especially a variety of benign and malignant skin conditions.
Warts, moles, skin tags, solar keratoses, Morton's neuroma and small skin cancers are candidates for cryosurgical treatment. Several internal disorders are also treated with cryosurgery, including liver cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, oral cancers, cervical disorders and, more commonly in the past, hemorrhoids. Soft tissue conditions such as plantar fasciitis and fibroma can be treated with cryosurgery. Generally, all tumors that can be reached by the cryoprobes used during an operation are treatable. Although found to be effective, this method of treatment is only appropriate for use against localized disease, and solid tumors larger than 1 cm. Tiny, diffuse metastases that often coincide with cancers are usually not affected by cryotherapy.
Cryosurgery works by taking advantage of the destructive force of freezing temperatures on cells. At low temperatures, ice crystals form inside the cells, which can tear them apart. More damage occurs when blood vessels supplying the diseased tissue freeze.
A common method of freezing lesions is using liquid nitrogen as the cooling solution. The super-cooled liquid may be sprayed on the diseased tissue, circulated through a tube called a cryoprobe, or simply dabbed on with a cotton or foam swab.
Recent advances in technology have allowed for the use of argon gas to drive ice formation using a principle known as the Joule-Thomson effect. This gives physicians excellent control of the ice, and minimizing complications using ultra-thin 17 gauge cryoneedles.
Dimethyl ether – propane
A mixture of dimethyl ether and propane is used in some preparations such as Dr. Scholl's Freeze Away. The mixture is stored in an aerosol spray type container at room temperature and drops to −41 °C (−42 °F) when dispensed. The mixture is often dispensed into a straw with a cotton-tipped swab.
A number of medical supply companies have developed cryogen delivery systems for cryosurgery. Most are based on the use of liquid nitrogen, although some employ the use of proprietary mixtures of gases that combine to form the cryogen. Some commonly used cryosurgical products are:
- Brymill Cry-Ac
- Cryosurgery, Inc. Verruca-Freeze
- Miltex Cryosolutions
- Premier CryOmega
- Premier NitroSpray
Cryosurgery is a minimally invasive procedure, and is often preferred to more traditional kinds of surgery because of its minimal pain, scarring, and cost; however, as with any medical treatment, there are risks involved, primarily that of damage to nearby healthy tissue. Damage to nerve tissue is of particular concern.
Patients undergoing cryosurgery usually experience minor-to-moderate localized pain and redness, which can be alleviated by oral administration of analgesics such as aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen (paracetamol). Blisters may form, but these usually scab over and peel away within several days.