Cryotherapy is a treatment that uses extreme cold to destroy cancer cells. Cryotherapy can be used to treat a number of different types of cancer and precancerous conditions.

Cryotherapy and cancer

Cryotherapy uses extreme cold to destroy cancer cells. It's also called cryosurgery or cryoablation. During cryotherapy treatment the doctor freezes the cancer cells to kill them.

Cryotherapy is called a local treatment, which means that it only treats the area where you have treatment. It doesn’t treat any cancer cells in other parts of the body. After the treatment the body’s immune system gets rid of the dead tissue over a few weeks.

Why you might have this treatment

Cryotherapy has been a treatment for abnormal cells of the cervix and for basal cell skin cancer for some time. It works well for these conditions. Research has shown that cryotherapy is safe to use for some other types of cancer and kills the cancer cells in the treatment area. But we need more information about the long term outlook to find out if it is as good as other treatments at stopping the cancer coming back.

You might also have cryotherapy as part of a clinical trial.

Cryotherapy for changes on the cervix

To treat precancerous changes on the cervix the doctor or nurse specialist puts a speculum into the vagina so they can see the cervix. They put special instruments called cryo probes into the vagina so that they firmly cover the abnormal areas of cervical tissue.

The liquid nitrogen in the cryoprobes then freezes the cells. This process might be repeated a couple of times. The treatment usually takes less than half an hour.

You might have period pain during and for a short time afterwards. And you may have some light vaginal bleeding which can last for up to 4 weeks. 

Cryotherapy for skin cancer

Your doctor sprays liquid nitrogen on to the area of cancer. Or they put it directly on to the area with a cotton swab. The liquid freezes the area. After treatment the liquid nitrogen dissolves and the area thaws.

A scab forms in the area. Over the next month or so the scab falls off along with any dead cancer cells.

Side effects include:

  • pain
  • swelling and redness
  • blistering
  • infection, although this is uncommon

Rare and longer term side effects might include scarring, numbness in the are and changes in skin colour, it may become either lighter or darker.

Having cryotherapy for cancer inside the body

For cancers inside the body, a small probe is inserted next to or inside the tumour. This probe is called a cryoprobe. The cryoprobe is attached to a supply of liquid nitrogen controlled by the doctor.

Your doctor or specialist nurse will talk to you beforehand about how you will have treatment and exactly what is involved.

Some cancers need to be frozen and thawed a number of times. Depending on the treatment area, it can take from a few minutes to a couple of hours. To help the doctor position the cryoprobe you may have either an ultrasound scan or CT scan.  The position of the cancer in the body affects how the doctor puts the cryoprobe into the area.

You may have cryotherapy through the skin (percutaneously) or cryotherapy through a scope.

You might have a general or a local anaesthetic, if you are having the cryoprobe put in through our skin.

For example, men having cryotherapy for prostate cancer have the probes put into the skin of the perineum (the area of skin between your back passage and your testicles). And for cryotherapy to the liver the doctor puts the probe in through the skin of the abdomen.

For kidney cancer a thin, flexible tube called a laparoscope is used to help position the cryoprobe. The laparoscope has a light and a tiny camera at the tip. A small cut is made in the skin on the side of the abdomen to put the laparoscope through.

The other way to reach tumours inside the body is by using a scope without going through the skin. For example, for lung cancer you might have a bronchoscopy to position the probe. Or for cancers in the food pipe you might have an endoscopy.

Before you agree to treatment your doctor will talk to you about the possible risks. The risks and possible side effects depend on the type of cancer you have and its position in the body. An advantage of cryotherapy is that it is not as invasive as having an operation. People usually recover within a few days after the treatment with very few side effects.

Side effects can include:

  • pain and discomfort in the treatment area, it should settle within a few days
  • bleeding from the treatment area, your blood pressure, pulse and wound on your skin (if you have one) will be checked regularly
  • damage by freezing normal tissue close to the treatment area, your doctor will try to avoid this as much as they can
Last reviewed: 
13 Aug 2018
  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology 

    VT De Vita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg

    Lipincott Williams and Wilkins, 2008

  • Cryotherapy for renal cancers

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2007

  • Cryotherapy of the liver: a histological review

    N Bhardwaj and others

    Cryobiology, 2010

    Volume 61, Issue 1

  • Invasive penile carcinoma: a review

    G Micali and others

    Dermatologic Surgery, 2004

    Volume 30, Issue 2

  • Transurethral electrovaporisation of the prostate

    National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2003

  • The use of lasers in the treatment of skin cancer: A review

    F Mirza and K Khatri 

    Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy 2017 Volume 19 number 8 pages 451-458

  • Percutaneous cryoablation of hepatic tumors: long-term experience of a large U.S. series

    P Littrup and others 

    Abdominal Radiology 2016 Volume 41 number 4 pages 767-80

  • Laparoscopic Versus Percutaneous Cryoablation of Small Renal Mass: Systematic Review and Cumulative Analysis of Comparative Studies

    R Pessoa and others 

    Clinical Genitourinary Cancer 2017 Volume 15 number 5 pages 513-519

  • Emerging surgical treatments for renal cell carcinoma

    F Husain and others 

    Future Oncology 2016 Volume 12 number 7 pages 921-9

  • Cryoablation for Small Renal Masses: Selection Criteria, Complications, and Functional and Oncologic Results

    H Zargar and others 

    European Urology 2016 Volume 69 number 1 pages 116-28

  • Liquid nitrogen spray cryotherapy for dysphagia palliation in patients with inoperable esophageal cancer

    T Kachaamy and others 

    Gastrointestinal Endoscopy 2018 Volume 18 pages 32673-7

Related links