It’s cold alright, but what exactly is cryotherapy? And is it safe?

  • Susan Jose, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Feb 02, 2016 19:17 IST
Cryotherapy has been used to treat various systemic conditions. It has also been used for dermatological and cosmetic purposes. (YouTube)

Recently, English footballer Jermain Defoe credited cryotherapy for helping his team, Sunderland AFC, win some crucial matches. He was quoted as saying, “We have been using a cryotherapy chamber. It’s like a sauna, but at –140 degrees Celsius. You go in for two minutes to speed up your recovery.”

Cryotherapy has been used to treat various systemic conditions. It has also been used for dermatological and cosmetic purposes.

But Dr Jayashree Todkar, a bariatric and metabolic surgeon, does not recommend the treatment unless a person really requires it. “If cryotherapy is used for anything other than scientific purposes, then it is being misused. People should opt for it if they are suffering from, say, muscle spasm disorders. But using it for cosmetic reasons is not advisable,” she says.

How does the treatment work?

The application of cryotherapy can either be localised to a certain skin condition or it can be applied to the whole body. The most common cryogenic agent used in treating skin conditions is liquid nitrogen, which can freeze human tissue to –196 degrees Celsius, thus causing cell death.

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Ice, dry ice (solid carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen), ether, etc., can also be used as cryogens. Liquid nitrogen is used in various forms, such as cryospray, cryogun, cryoroller, cryoslush or cryojet. There are two phases of this treatment — freeze and thaw. Depending on the severity and extent of the lesions, multiple freeze-thaw cycles can be used.

The treatment uses a variety of techniques, as mentioned below. All of themneed a freezing agent and a local anaesthetic to relieve the pain.

Cryoprobe method: Various metal attachments, which serve as heat-conducting probes for cryotherapy, are attached and placed on the lesion. Copper, because of its high conductivity, is typically used. A thin film of white petrolatum can be applied to the treatment site, and the cold probe is firmly pressed against the lesion. This transfers the cold temperature onto the lesion, and destroys it.

Dipstick applicator method: A cotton-tipped applicator is dipped into liquid nitrogen. The dipstick applicator is then firmly pressed against the lesion for the desired duration. Low temperatures are not achieved in the dipstick applicator method, as they use the spray technique; therefore, this method is suitable only for benign lesions.

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Thermocouple device: This is used for malignant lesions; for this, a temperature probe attached to a digital thermometer is used. A temperature probe is inserted into the estimated depth of the lesion. Usually, a metal or styrene cone is used to concentrate the freeze. The liquid nitrogen is then sprayed into the cone until the desired temperature is achieved, and the lesion is destroyed.

Spray freeze technique: This is the most common technique, in which a spray with liquid nitrogen is focused on a lesion by using cones. The openings of the cones vary in size, and are chosen depending on the size and shape of the lesion. The nozzle tip of the spray gun is held about 1cm from the treatment site, and liquid nitrogen is sprayed on the lesion until an ice ball is formed. The operator then examines the lesion with his or her hands to determine the size of the ice ball formed. This process is repeated until an ice ball of the desired size is created.

The emerging health trend called cryotherapy redefines the term “chilling out.” (YouTube)

What is cryotherapy primarily used for?

* Treating cysts and tumours

* Treating skin conditions like warts, moles, skin tags and solar keratosis

* For spot fat reduction, also known as Cryolipolysis

* To boost immunity, and provide relief from pain and a number of immunological diseases through Cryosauna (in which the full body is immersed in ice cold water for a few minutes).

Who is cryotherapy not recommended for?

* Heart patients and diabetics

* Those on blood thinners, as it can cause bleeding and bruising

* Those wanting to only lose weight, as the long-term effects of cryotherapy on weight-loss have not yet been recorded

* Those seeking skin tightening, rejuvenation or anti-ageing treatment.

PROS and Cons of cryotherapy


* It is a quick and non-invasive procedure

* It is economical, as compared to some other laser-based treatments

* It effectively treats warts at the genitalia

* It is painless, as it involves the use of local anaesthesia

* It is easy to use; it is also preferred while treating children

* It is less cumbersome and time consuming

* It is easily available.


* It can cause blisters

* It can damage healthy tissues or vessels

* It can cause infections

* If the nerves are affected, it can result in the loss of sensation

* It can result in scarring

* It can cause sexual dysfunction

* It can cause ulcers

* It could lead to the discolouration of skin in the area affected by the procedure.

— With inputs from Dr Soma Sarkar, dermatologist, Dr Mohan Thomas, cosmetic surgeon and Dr Apratim Goel, dermatologist

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