The sciatic nerves of rabbits were frozen at different temperatures (-20 degrees C, -60 degrees C, -100 degrees C, -140 degrees C, and -180 degrees C). The morphology and function of the frozen nerves were examined with light microscopy (hematoxylin and eosinophilin stain and a histochemical thiocholine method) and electron microscopy. The function of the nerve after freezing was assessed using short latency somatosensory evoked potentials, sensory conduction velocity, and electromyogram at various intervals after freezing. There were no changes in morphology or function of nerves cryolesioned at -20 degrees C. The nerve fibers cryolesioned at -60 degrees C showed signs of freezing degeneration and lost their conductive function although, these nerves all recovered. Approximately half of nerve fibers cryolesioned at -100 degrees C showed Wallerian degeneration, and although the time to remyelination was delayed, nerve regeneration was still complete. At -140 degrees C and -180 degrees C the nerve fibers showed immediate necrosis, with destruction of basal membranes and proliferation of collagen fibers. The results explained the mechanism of cryoanalgesia. Our study demonstrates that cryo-temperatures lower than -140 degrees C will cause permanent alterations in nerve morphology and function, whereas warmer temperatures do not result in permanent nerve damage and are therefore not likely to provide long-term analgesia to patients.