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What is Cryoablation?

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  • Written By: Steve R.
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 27 October 2016
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Cryoablation involves using extreme cold temperatures to freeze and remove unwanted tissue and cells, often using a cotton swab or spray device. The minimally invasive technique includes using liquid nitrogen or argon gas on cells and tissue located inside or outside the body. Typically, cryoablation, also referred to as cryotherapy or cryosurgery, is used for various conditions including certain kinds of cancer and tumors, as well as moles and nodules. Cyrotherapy is often performed using just a local anesthesia and is usually performed on an out-patient basis. While cryosurgery may have certain benefits, its long-term effectiveness is unknown.

During the procedure, the fluid outside the cells is frozen, causing the cells to dehydrate. Once the cells reach a temperature of -40 degrees Fahrenheit (about - 40 Celsius), the cells will die after clotting. Typically, it takes about 10 minutes for the cells to reach the killing temperature, which is maintained for at least 10 minutes to ensure the death of the unwanted cells or tissue.

To remove unwanted cells or tissue on the skin, liquid nitrogen is applied topically. The frozen tissue or cells dissolve and a scab soon forms. However, for cells or tissues that need to be removed internally, the procedure is more complex. To freeze diseased cells or tissues internally may take up to three hours.

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A sedative medication is given intravenously and a small incision is made in the area near the unwanted internal cells or tissues. Using ultrasound or MRI, a physician will guide a hollow instrument called a cryoprobe, which contains the liquid nitrogen or argon gas, into the skin. A ball of ice is created around the cryoprobe, which freezes the needed cells and tissues. The frozen cells and tissues are then soaked up by the body.

Cryoablation is often used to treat many kinds of cancer, including retinoblastoma, a cancer that affects the retina during childhood. Also, the procedure is used for men who have prostate cancer that is limited to the prostate gland. Cryoablation may be used to treat liver cancer that has not reached other parts of the body.

The process of freezing unwanted cells or tissue minimizes complications of surgery, such as pain and bleeding. When used to treat kidney and liver tumors, recovery time is much less than removing the tumors with other surgery. Cryoablation may also be used as a method of treatment for people who may not be ideal candidates for conventional surgery due to age or health restrictions.

There are a handful of risks and disadvantages associated with the procedure. Since the procedure can only be performed in a localized area, it is possible for physicians to miss removing microscopic bits of cancer. When used to combat prostate cancer, there is the risk that sexual impotency may occur, as nerves involved in sexual reproduction are also frozen. If the treatment is used to treat conditions of the skin, scarring, swelling, and loss of pigmentation may develop.

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