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Cryosurgery - Icy Cold Handiwork

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Cryosurgery – Icy Cold Handiwork!


Using extreme cold for practically painless and bloodless surgery sounds like a futuristic concept, but it is here today and even available from your veterinarian.

Dr. Jim HumphriesBy:  Dr. Jim Humphries, Certified Veterinary Journalist, Veterinary News Network


Icy Cold Handiwork may sound like a strange name for a new surgical modality being used by physicians and veterinarians on all types of skin problems, including cancer.  But, it actually is the literal translation of “cryosurgery”.  Cryo comes from a Greek word meaning icy cold, and surgery from the Greek word meaning handiwork!  But, today’s modern cryosurgery is more than handiwork; it’s very sophisticated, efficient, fast and economical. 

You might think that cryosurgery is a fantastic new invention, but doctors have actually used “liquid air” for treating skin conditions for more than 100 years.  Over the course of the 20th century, scientists and doctors found that liquid nitrogen was one of the best for reaching the low temperatures necessary for actually freezing a skin lesion.

Classically, cryosurgery uses a rod or probe to touch the lesion and freeze it. This causes the propagation of an ice ball in living tissues quickly killing them. There have also been sprays funneled onto the mass from a spray can and even cotton tip application of the freezing liquid. Historically though, these methods had difficulty with accurate delivery and sometimes healthy tissue was affected.  Additionally, there has been concern that indirect methods of applying the liquid nitrogen, such as using a cotton swab, could not sufficiently create enough freezing in the lesion to destroy it.

The most modern application is high pressure liquid nitrous oxide delivered from a new handheld device.  This instrument sprays the nitrous oxide coolant at a temperature of minus 127 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, doctors can very precisely place this high pressure gas right on a wart, skin tag or even a cancerous growth and kill it quickly.  This is very accurate, sparing the surrounding tissues and allows the doctor to use cryosurgery in very delicate areas, such as eyelids.

After the tissue freezes, it is allowed to thaw, and then it is frozen again.  This “freeze-thaw-freeze” cycle is what causes destruction on the cells.  At these extreme low temperatures, ice crystals form inside the cells which destroys them.  Even more damage is done to the lesions when the blood vessels supplying them are also frozen, robbing the mass of its blood supply.  

Cryosurgery is a well proved method and highly effective for a broad range of skin problems in people and in animals.  It has even been used inside the body in certain applications to kill suspicious growths.  Veterinarians have successfully treated dogs, cats, horses, ferrets and even birds with these devices.

One nice thing about cryosurgery is that our animal patients don’t have to be anesthetized.  In fact, as the tissue freezes along with the blood vessels, this mode of treatment causes its own tissue numbing, making it practically painless and bloodless.  This is an important issue as the vast majority of animals will not stand still if you are trying to remove a growth with a scalpel blade!

Cryosurgery devices are also very portable making it wonderful for going from patient to patient in a clinic, or perfect in a house call setting.  Equine veterinarians can even use these types of devices right on the farm!
Today with such precise placement of the cryogen gas, this modality can even be used on growths around the mouth, ears and eyes. 

Costs are very inexpensive when compared to traditional surgery because anesthesia and normal sterile preparation is not necessary.  The doctor’s time is also less as the treatment is so fast and effective. 

There is an upper limit to the size of growth or lesion that can be successfully treated in this manner.  If the lesion extends more than about 5 mm in depth, it may not respond well to this sort of surgery.

So, the next time you see a suspicious growth on your pets please don’t wait, ask your veterinarian and get an assessment, then perhaps they will use the icy cold handiwork called cryosurgery.




Dr. Humphries has been granted the Seal of Approval by the American Society of Veterinary Journalists.