What is Cryoablation? Risks & Benefits | MedStar Health

Cryoablation is a type of cryotherapy, a minimally invasive interventional radiology procedure that uses extreme cold to freeze and kill abnormal cancerous and precancerous cells. The application of cold to tumor cells prevents further growth or spreading, making this an effective outpatient treatment for cancer.

During cryoablation, imaging guidance such as ultrasound or computed tomography (CT) visualizes the affected tissue for your interventional radiologist as they safely inject a freezing agent through a thin needle. Since it only requires a small, pin-hole sized incision, recovery is fast and there are fewer risks of complication than surgery.

Why cryoablation is performed

Cryoablation is a well-tolerated treatment approach for various cancers, including cancers of the:

  • Bone
  • Cervix
  • Eye
  • Liver
  • Lung
  • Kidney
  • Prostate

Cryoablation may be used to alleviate pain and other symptoms caused by spreading cancers. It is typically recommended when a patient is unable to undergo surgical tumor removal due to advanced age, overall disease burden, or issues with heart or pulmonary functioning.

This therapy might be a sole approach to alleviate cancer symptoms when a mass is too risky to operate on, or it could be part of a broader, multi-therapy treatment plan. The tumor’s core attributes, including size, staging, and site, are what helps your doctor determine if cryoablation will be effective in eliminating malignant cells.

What to expect during cryoablation

This procedure is performed in an outpatient setting by an interventional radiologist. However, depending on the tumor site or organ, you may be required to stay overnight following the procedure. Before the start of the procedure, you may receive general anesthesia or conscious sedation via an intravenous (IV) line, which will keep you comfortable and safe during your procedure. Next, local anesthesia is applied to the area of the skin that will be accessed with a small incision.

Then, a small needle is guided through the incision by ultrasound or CT scan to help your doctor safely access the tumor mass. Once at the tumor, the cooled tip of the needle will freeze the tumor tissue. Once the tumor thaws, this process may be repeated multiple times during the same treatment session.

Once the procedure is complete, the needle is removed and the area is bandaged. From here, you may move to a specialized recovery area or be admitted to the hospital for an overnight stay.

Risk and benefits

Cryoablation is a safe procedure with many benefits. Most importantly, the treatment approach has high success in stopping the growth or spread of cancerous cells. It also offers patients a rapid recovery time with less pain when compared to surgical tumor management.

Like all medical procedures, it does carry some small risks, including bleeding, infection, and accidental damage to nearby, healthy organs. Advanced imaging guidance helps your care team to reduce these risks as much as possible.

How to prepare for cryoablation

Before your procedure, your interventional radiologist will ask you about your current medications, as some may need to be stopped prior to the scheduled procedure, including blood thinners. Bloodwork may also be ordered to make sure your immune system response and blood clotting ability are adequate.

Your care team will communicate any restrictions on eating and drinking prior to your appointment time. Because you will receive sedation during the procedure, be sure to arrange for a ride home.

Post cryoablation

If you have immediate pain following the procedure, your care team will provide pain medication while you are still at the hospital. Over-the-counter pain relief can treat any residual pain after you return home, typically the same day of your procedure or the next day. Most patients are able to resume normal daily activities within only a few days. Most patients experience no pain at the incision site one week after the ablation.

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