Cryotherapy, also called cryoablation or cryosurgery, is a treatment involving freezing temperatures. This minimally-invasive technique can address various conditions, including precancerous or early basal and squamous cell skin cancers.

In today’s article, Buckeye Dermatology will provide detailed answers to the commonly asked questions about cryotherapy for skin cancer, and explain why more patients are choosing this option over others.

10 Frequently Asked Questions About Cryotherapy for Skin Cancer

Research demonstrates that most individuals seek answers to the following queries:

How does cryotherapy work?

During cryotherapy, a specialist sprays or swabs liquid nitrogen or dry, hyper-cooled air onto the targeted area’s surface to freeze and destroy the cancerous tissue. The procedure allows a scab to form and fall off along with the dead cancer cells.

What types of skin cancer can cryotherapy address?

The American Cancer Society acknowledges that cryotherapy is effective against the following:

  • Actinic keratosis: Dry and scaly skin patches resulting from sun damage. Because it can progress into squamous cell carcinoma, doctors usually classify actinic keratosis as precancerous.
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  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC): Affecting 1.8 million people in the U.S. each year, this common form of skin cancer infiltrates the squamous cells, which comprise the middle and outer skin layers.
  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC): Manifesting as a visible lump or lesion on the epidermal layer, this slow-growing cancer mostly develops on sun-damaged skin.

For more information regarding the latter two diseases, go and check out our article on How to Tell Basal Cell vs. Squamous Cell Carcinoma Apart.

How long does cryotherapy take?

This quick and simple procedure can take less than 30 minutes to complete. More specifically, a localized treatment may last between five and ten minutes, depending on the lesion’s size and location, and how long it takes to achieve and maintain the preferred skin-surface temperature.

Is cryotherapy painful?

In 2022, a study published in BioMed Central highlighted how cryotherapy affected pain scores. The researchers noted that performing cryotherapy with topical anesthesia minimized pain and discomfort during surgery. Therefore, while this procedure can be uncomfortable, most patients consider it tolerable or manageable.

How many sessions are required?

The number of cryotherapy sessions needed will depend on the lesion’s specificity. For example, a single freeze-thaw cycle with a temperature of -25 C may address benign keratinocytic tumors and -5 C for pigmented lesions. Meanwhile, a malignant or cancerous lesion may require two cycles and a temperature of -50 C.

How long does it take to see results?

The final results of cryosurgery can take some time to appear, depending on the patient and the specific condition requiring treatment. For instance, in the case of precancerous actinic keratosis, the treated area may appear red and swollen for several days, and it may take weeks for the site to heal before the results become apparent. In the case of skin cancers, it can take months on end to see the full effects of cryotherapy, as the body’s immune system works to eliminate the damaged skin cancer cells.

What are the side effects of cryotherapy?

Like all medical procedures, cryotherapy can have side effects. A patient may experience one or more of the following during and/or after treatment:

  • Numbness or tingling: During cryotherapy, the patient may experience a temporary numbing or tingling sensation in the treated area. This “side effect” is a normal response to the cold and should resolve on its own.
  • Shivering: Cryotherapy can cause the body to shiver, which is another natural response when exposed to freezing temperatures. In addition, keep in mind that shivering helps generate heat to keep the body warm.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness: Some people may experience dizziness or lightheadedness during or after cryotherapy. This side effect is more common among individuals with low blood pressure.
  • Skin irritation: Exposure to cold temperatures can irritate the skin, leading to redness and itching. These symptoms are mild and temporary, usually resolving within a few hours.
  • Blisters and ulcers: If a provider prolongs the freezing process or affects deeper skin areas, the patient will encounter pain, infection, and scarring.
  • Burns: In rare cases, cryotherapy can cause skin burns, particularly if the patient chooses an unqualified provider with improperly maintained equipment.

As always, before undergoing any medical procedure, discussing any concerns or potential side effects with the provider should be a leading priority. Furthermore, patients must make time to conduct research and read reviews, ensuring that the facility and equipment undergo routine maintenance.

What is the success rate of cryotherapy for skin cancer?

According to the results of a 2011 study, superficial basal cell cancer (sBCC) and squamous cell carcinoma in situ (SCCIS) treated with liquid nitrogen cryotherapy had success rates of over 90 percent.

A five-year experimental study published in 1988 also concluded that cryosurgery has an overall cure rate of 97 percent. The researchers examined and treated 395 people with non-melanoma, and how the procedure improved the health of these participants proved cryotherapy’s safety and effectiveness against non-melanomas like SCC and BCC.

What is the recovery process like?

The recovery process after cryosurgery “freezing” can vary depending on the location and extent of treatment. In general, the treated area will be sore, swollen, and may develop a blister or scab in the days following the procedure. Here are some common aspects of the recovery process:

  • Treatment area care: Follow your dermatologist’s post-op care instructions, which may include keeping the treated area protected with bandages, and keeping the area clean and dry to prevent unwanted infections.
  • Pain management: Over-the-counter painkillers or prescription pain medication can help manage any discomfort.
  • Activity restrictions: Depending on the treatment area’s location, you may be advised to avoid activities that could disrupt the healing process, such as exercise or heavy lifting.
  • Follow-up appointments: You will likely need to attend follow-up appointments with your dermatologist to monitor the healing process and evaluate the treatments effectiveness.

Who can perform cryotherapy?

Only licensed dermatologists, cryotherapy technicians, physical therapists, and other qualified healthcare professionals with experience in this procedure can perform cryotherapy effectively and safely. They should have extensive training in the use of medical equipment, the physiology of the body, and the management of medical emergencies.

Minimize the risk of complications and ensure optimal healing by getting cryotherapy for skin cancer at Buckeye Dermatology, Arizona. As leading experts in skin cancer treatments and other skin wellness techniques, our team can provide the care you need to address precancerous and malignant lesions while producing excellent cosmetic results. Call us at 602-754-6075 to talk about your options and schedule your consultation.