Cryotherapy is a technique that uses an extremely cold liquid or instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal skin cells that require removal. The technique has been in use since the turn of the century, but modern techniques have made it widely available to dermatologists and primary care doctors. The technique is also called cryosurgery.
Cryotherapy can be employed to destroy a variety of benign skin growths, such as warts, pre-cancerous lesions (such as actinic keratoses), and malignant lesions (such as basal cell and squamous cell cancers). The goal of Cryotherapy is to freeze and destroy targeted skin growths while preserving the surrounding skin from injury.
There are 3 main techniques to performing Cryotherapy. In the simplest technique, usually reserved for warts and other benign skin growths, the physician will dip a cotton swab or other applicator into a cup containing a “cryogen”, such as liquid nitrogen, and apply it directly to the skin growth to freeze it. At a temperature of –320F (-196Celsius), liquid nitrogen is the coldest cryogen available. The goal is to freeze the skin growth as quickly as possible, and then let it thaw slowly to cause maximum destruction of the skin cells. A second application may be necessary depending on the size of the growth. In another Cryotherapy technique, a device is used to direct a small spray of liquid nitrogen or other cryogen directly onto the skin growth. Freezing may last from 5 to 20 seconds, depending on the size of the lesion. A second freeze-thaw cycle may be required. Sometimes, the physician will insert a small needle connected to a thermometer into the lesion to make certain the lesion is cooled to a low enough temperature to guarantee maximum destruction. In a third option, liquid nitrogen or another cryogen is circulated through a probe to cool it to low temperatures. The probe is then brought into direct contact with the skin lesion to freeze it. The freeze time can take two to three times longer than with the spray technique.