Cryotherapy is the use of cooling as a means of treating injuries, and may be used in different ways on both acute and chronic injuries. Much research has been carried out on the effects of cooling on damaged soft tissues, and although the benefits are now widely accepted, there are varying opinions on how long the application should be to gain maximum benefit. There are many athletes who believe a long soak in a hot bath after an injury is the best remedy to ease the pain.
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 known as cryocautery or cryosurgery.
Cryotherapy is used to destroy a variety of benign skin growths, such as warts, pre-cancerous lesions (actinic keratoses), and malignant lesions. The goal of cryotherapy is to freeze and destroy targeted skin growths while preserving the surrounding skin from injury.
In dermatology applications, there are three main techniques used in cryotherapy. In the simplest technique, usually reserved for warts and other benign skin growths, the physician dips a cotton swab or other applicator into a cup containing a “cryogen” such as liquid nitrogen and applies it directly to the skin growth to freeze it. At a temperature of –320°F (–196°C), 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 approach, a device is used to direct a small spray of liquid nitrogen or other cryogen directly onto the skin growth. Freezing may last from five to 20 seconds, depending on the size of the lesion. A second freeze-thaw cycle may be required. Sometimes, the physician inserts a small needle connected to a thermometer into the lesion to make certain the lesion is cooled to a temperature low enough 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.
In dermatology applications, redness, swelling and the formation of a blister at the site of cryotherapy are all expected results of the treatment. A gauze dressing is applied, and patients should wash the site three or four times daily while fluid continues to ooze from the wound, usually for five to 14 days. A dry crust will form that falls off by itself. Wounds on the head and neck may take four to six weeks to heal, but those on the body, arms, and legs can take longer. Some patients experience pain at the site following the treatment. This can usually be eased with acetaminophen , though in some cases a stronger pain reliever may be required.
In dermatology applications, cryotherapy poses little risk and can be well tolerated by elderly and other patients who are not good candidates for other surgical procedures. As with other surgical procedures, there is some risk of scarring, infection, and damage to underlying skin and tissue. These risks are generally minimal in the hands of experienced physicians.
Care should be taken, however, in subjecting people with diabetes or certain circulation problems to cryotherapy for growths located on their lower legs, ankles, and feet. In these patients, healing can be poor and the risk of infection can be higher than for other patients.
Some redness, swelling, blistering, and oozing of fluid are all common results of cryotherapy. Healing time can vary by the site treated and the cryotherapy technique used. When cryogen is applied directly to the growth, healing may occur in three weeks. Growths treated on the head and neck with the spray technique may take four to six weeks to heal, while growths treated on other areas of the body may take considerably longer. For certain types of growths such as some forms of warts, repeat treatments over several weeks are necessary to prevent the growth’s return.