Thyroid nodules are common and often benign, yet their treatment remains a significant concern for many patients and healthcare providers. Among the various minimally invasive procedures available, cryoablation and radiofrequency ablation (RFA) are effective alternatives to surgical intervention.

Cryoablation is a technique that uses extreme cold to destroy tissue, while RFA uses radiofrequency energy to heat and damage targeted tissues. Both offer potential benefits, including reduced recovery times and a lower risk of complications.

However, the effectiveness of cryoablation compared to radiofrequency ablation, especially in terms of long-term outcomes and specific radiofrequency ablation thyroid nodule side effects, is a critical area of ongoing research and discussion within the medical community. Understanding the safety and efficacy of these treatments is essential for managing thyroid nodules effectively.

Introduction to Thyroid Nodule Management

Thyroid nodules are frequently discovered during routine medical examinations and are prevalent in up to 68% of the general population in the United States. While most of these nodules—90% to 95%—are benign, some may cause symptoms like swallowing difficulties, breathing issues, or cosmetic concerns such as visible swelling or neck discomfort requiring treatment.

Historically, surgery was the go-to method for addressing problematic thyroid nodules. However, advances in medical technology have broadened the range of options available. Minimally invasive techniques such as cryoablation and RFA now offer less disruptive and safer alternatives to traditional surgery. These innovative treatments minimize the risks associated with surgical procedures and provide quicker recovery times.

What is Cryoablation?

Cryoablation is a medical procedure that uses extreme cold to selectively destroy tissue. It involves the insertion of a thin probe into the thyroid nodule, guided by ultrasound for precise placement.

Once positioned, the probe’s temperature is reduced to around -99.4°F to freeze and obliterate the abnormal thyroid cells. This freezing causes ice crystals to form inside the cells, disrupting the cell membranes and resulting in cell death or necrosis.

Advantages of Cryoablation:

  • Minimally invasive. Cryoablation requires only a tiny incision for the probe, making it far less invasive than traditional surgery.
  • Low pain and discomfort. As the freezing process naturally numbs the target area, you may experience less pain and discomfort during and after the procedure.
  • Rapid recovery. The less invasive nature of the procedure often allows patients to return to their normal activities shortly afterward, in some cases as little as three days after treatment, minimizing downtime.

Limitations of Cryoablation:

  • Risk of incomplete ablation. One significant challenge with cryoablation is the possibility that not all the targeted tissue will be destroyed entirely, which may require additional treatments.
  • Potential damage to surrounding tissues. While the procedure is generally safe, there is a risk of damaging surrounding tissues if the probe affects areas beyond the intended target.

Radiofrequency Ablation

What is Radiofrequency Ablation?

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is a procedure that uses high-frequency radio waves to generate heat within a targeted area. During RFA, a probe is carefully inserted into the thyroid nodule using ultrasound guidance. Then, radio waves are transmitted through the probe, heating the nodule tissue to temperatures up to 212°F, which causes the cells to die and the nodule to shrink over time.

Advantages of RFA:

  • Controlled energy delivery. The procedure allows for precise control over how much heat is delivered, which can be continuously adjusted and monitored to ensure effective treatment while minimizing risk.
  • Effective for larger nodules. RFA is particularly effective at treating larger thyroid nodules (those over 25 ml in volume). It is a versatile option for nodules that may be too large or dense for other minimally invasive treatments.
  • Preservation of thyroid function. Since RFA specifically targets the nodule, the surrounding healthy thyroid tissue, including parathyroid glands and vocal cord structures, remains largely unaffected, helping to preserve overall thyroid function.

Limitations of RFA:

  • Heat damage. Although the procedure is precise, there is always a risk of thermal injury to the tissues adjacent to the target area and minor skin burns to the area under the grounding pad, which might cause complications.
  • Discomfort. Patients may experience discomfort or pain during the heating phase of the procedure. However, measures are often taken to manage and minimize pain, such as applying local anesthesia to the neck before probe insertion.

Comparative Effectiveness

To assess the effectiveness of cryoablation versus radiofrequency ablation (RFA), various factors must be considered, including efficacy in reducing nodule size, symptom relief, and recurrence rates associated with each treatment method.

  • Efficacy in reducing nodule size. Both cryoablation and radiofrequency ablation are effective techniques for reducing the size of thyroid nodules, with studies demonstrating dramatic volume reductions following treatment. However, RFA tends to achieve a slightly higher volume reduction rate than cryoablation.
    In terms of specific outcomes, cryoablation has shown impressive results, with 60% of nodules treated with cryoablation achieving complete involution during the study period. However, very few studies or available data exist on the long-term efficacy of the treatment.
    RFA has been thoroughly evaluated in various studies, including a meta-analysis that found a pooled volume reduction of 76.1% at six months. Long-term follow-up studies of RFA demonstrated a rapid reduction in nodule size at 12 months, followed by a plateau in size reduction from 12 to 36 months. After 36 months, further volume reduction was observed, with a pooled volume reduction reaching 80.3%.
  • Symptom relief. Both radiofrequency ablation and cryoablation have proven effective in relieving symptoms associated with thyroid nodules, such as difficulty swallowing and visible neck bulges that raise cosmetic concerns.
    A recent 2023 study investigating the impact of cryoablation on thyroid nodules in three patients found significant symptomatic improvement. By the three-month follow-up, all patients reported complete resolution of compressive symptoms. Additionally, one patient experienced a visibly noticeable reduction in nodule size, directly addressing their cosmetic concerns.
    Similarly, a 2022 study focused on the efficacy of RFA for symptom relief in thyroid nodule patients demonstrated substantial improvements. This study found that patients experienced relief of compressive symptoms with scores decreasing from an average of 7.1 to 1.76, while cosmetic concerns were also drastically reduced, with scores improving from 3.66 to 2.14.
  • Recurrence rates. Recurrence rates following treatment for thyroid nodules vary between radiofrequency ablation (RFA) and cryoablation, with current evidence suggesting a lower recurrence rate for RFA. However, the availability of long-term data is still limited, making it necessary for more comprehensive studies to fully confirm this trend.
    A 2023 study on thyroid RFA highlights this point. During the study’s follow-up period, out of 120 patients treated, 16 experienced recurrences, translating to a recurrence rate of 13.33%. This data provides insight into the long-term effectiveness of RFA in managing thyroid nodules.
    Unfortunately, specific data on the recurrence rates for cryoablation treating benign thyroid nodules are unavailable. This lack of data highlights the need for further research to accurately compare the long-term outcomes of cryoablation with those of RFA, particularly in terms of recurrence rates.
  • Side effects. Both radiofrequency ablation and cryoablation are minimally invasive treatments for thyroid nodules, each with potential side effects.
    Thyroid radiofrequency ablation side effects include nodule rupture, thermal injury to nearby tissues, which may lead to voice changes or hoarseness, rare hematoma formation, and a slight risk of infection.
    Cryoablation side effects of cold therapy typically involve temporary numbness, minor risk of frostbite at the treatment site, discomfort during recovery, and swelling, which usually resolves quickly.
    While both methods offer a safer alternative to surgery with fewer serious complications, discussing risks with a healthcare provider is vital when deciding on a thyroid nodule management plan.

Patient Experience and Recovery

Both treatments are generally well-tolerated, causing few serious complications and allowing for a quick recovery. Most patients are able to get back to their regular activities just a few days after the treatment.

There are some differences in pain and discomfort between the two methods. Cryoablation tends to cause less pain immediately after the procedure because the cold treatment helps to numb the area.

RFA, which uses heat to destroy the nodule tissue, causes discomfort in only 2-3% of patients. This discomfort is usually a temporary, mild burning sensation similar to what might be experienced during certain dental procedures. You can manage any post-treatment discomfort with OTC pain relievers.

These insights can help you and your doctors choose the best treatment option based on your individual comfort levels and recovery speed.

Choosing Between Cryoablation and Radiofrequency Ablation for Thyroid Nodules

So is cryoablation as effective as radiofrequency ablation? Both treatments are beneficial for reducing thyroid nodules and their associated symptoms, offering safe and less invasive alternatives to surgery.

While RFA may offer a slightly higher efficacy, particularly in treating larger nodules, cryoablation may be a viable option for some patients. However, there is currently not enough definitive data on cryoablation specific to thyroid nodules, meaning RFA may be the better option.

If you suspect you have thyroid nodules, visit Associated Endocrinologists for an exam and to discuss your treatment options. Our team can answer your questions on the procedure and any radiofrequency ablation thyroid nodule side effects to help create a thyroid nodule management plan that can improve your quality of life. Contact Associated Endocrinologists today to book your consultation.

Call Now Button