Whether you’re a professional athlete, an avid fitness enthusiast, someone who just suffered an injury, or someone interested in the new technology being used in physical therapy today, you’ve likely stumbled across the term ‘cryotherapy’ before.
It’s one of the leading new concepts with athletic recovery today, with thousands of spas and salons offering it all over the country. While it is believed to provide a wide range of physical and mental benefits, it’s still a rather new treatment with a limited amount of evidence.
With that being said, it hasn’t stopped the treatment from gaining popularity over the past few years and continues to gain attraction the more we learn about it. If you’re someone that’s new to cryotherapy and what it might have to offer, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
What Is Cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy is an umbrella term for any form of therapy that involves using freezing or near-freezing temperature on either a targeted area or the entire body. The word ‘cryo’ actually comes from the greek word krýos, which means ‘frost’ or ‘ice cold.’
Some of the most popular forms of targeted cryotherapy include facials, massages, devices, gel packs, ice packs, cooling spray, and probes administered in the tissue. In fact, some doctors have used cryotherapy to remove warts and cancerous cells.
While those are all considered to be forms of cryotherapy, it doesn’t fully encompass what cryotherapy is today. When most people discuss cryotherapy today, they’re talking about whole-body cryotherapy, also known as WBC. Instead of targeting a specific area of the body, WBC targets the entire body.
Many studies show potential, both physically and psychologically, with both targeted and whole-body cryotherapy methods. It’s something that professional athletes have used for decades when recovering after a long night of hard work.
While some players still elect for the ice bath, many are making the conversion to cryotherapy chambers or booths — which is the preferred way of cryotherapy today. Either way, the goal is to freeze the body temporarily to spur several different reactions inside the body.
How Does Cryotherapy Work?
When we think of cryotherapy, it’s important to understand some of the basic principles behind it that most of us already use on a daily basis. For example, when you cut yourself, burn yourself, or injure yourself, one of the first things we do (instinctively) is put the affected area under cold water (also called cold water immersion).
The same concept applies to modern-day cryotherapy, except the use of technology takes it to extreme heights — freezing heights.
Those that wish to give it a try must step inside the cryotherapy chamber wearing minimal clothing (gloves, socks, loose shorts, no shirt for guys, sports bra for women). Most chambers use electricity and liquid nitrogen to bring the levels anywhere from -150 degrees Fahrenheit to -300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once the temperatures drop to those insane levels, your body begins to respond to the new environment. Since it’s a less-than-ideal environment, it triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, which leads to a rush of blood to the torso to protect the vital organs (keep them warm).
As you step out, oxygenated blood rushes back into the organs, helping the healing/recovery process.
How Long Should You Do Cryotherapy For?
As you can likely imagine, cryotherapy is something that could be extremely dangerous (even fatal) if not utilized properly. Especially since there’s still so much to learn about it and the fact that it hasn’t been proven, it’s always best to seek the help of a professional before undergoing this type of therapy.
With that being said, you should never be inside a cryotherapy chamber for more than 3-5 minutes (with 5 minutes starting to push it). With an ice bath, however, you generally want to try and stay in for 15-20 minutes — same with an ice pack on a targeted area.
It’s recommended you time yourself to avoid being in longer than expected. You should always avoid sleeping or napping while utilizing any form of cryotherapy.
While it’s possible to start seeing benefits after one session, the best results often come with continued use over a long period of time. Since it takes some getting used to, many people won’t utilize it enough to see benefits.
Is Cryotherapy Safe?
While cryotherapy is generally regarded as safe when following proper guidelines, there are a number of situations where cryotherapy should be avoided. There are also several side effects you should be aware of before doing cryotherapy.
For example, the following people should avoid cryotherapy all-together: pregnant women, children, people with high blood pressure, people with heart conditions, people with diabetes, anyone with metal implants or pacemakers, or anyone with a condition that affects the nerves.
You should also be aware of frostbite, which could occur as a result of excessive use or entering a chamber with wet clothes. Instead, make sure all garments are dry and feel free to move around while in the chamber to keep the blood flowing.
Some normal side effects with cryotherapy include numbness, tingling, redness, and skin irritation. These are generally temporary, but you should bring it to a doctor’s attention if the issue persists.
To avoid complications when undergoing cryotherapy, it’s best to have your vitals checked before and after the session — such as body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen levels.
Benefits Of Cryotherapy
Cryotherapy is one of the most popular recovery treatments today and is being used all over the world. You’ll find them in salons, spas, gyms, and even homes (if you’re wealthy enough).
While there’s a lack of evidence in many of the categories, researchers are currently studying cryotherapy for a variety of benefits. To ensure you understand everything cryotherapy is believed to offer, let’s take a look at the many benefits being studied today.
1. Pain Relief
One of the most promising benefits of cryotherapy is muscle healing and pain relief. It’s a large reason why we turn to the ice pack when we injure ourselves, except we’re doing it to the entire body for a shorter amount of time.
Not only does it promote a faster recovery from muscle pain, joint pain, and muscle pain, but it also helps relieve symptoms caused by arthritis. A large reason for this is due to the sudden increase of blood circulation when you step out of the chamber.
It can also help relieve nerve irritation by numbing the area. Of course, there are also studies that show no reported relief from pain or discomfort from an injury, so researchers are still working to understand the underlying factors.
2. Supports Weight Loss
While entering a cryotherapy chamber won’t directly help you shed weight, it could potentially improve the process. This is because the body needs to work extra hard when it’s cold, that way the body stays warm enough to survive.
With that being said, there’s a chance cryotherapy improves metabolism throughout the day. A better metabolism would help you prevent gaining weight due to a slow metabolism, but it wouldn’t solve the issue.
In addition to that, cryotherapy is known to improve overall wellness. When combined with less pain, it could give you a boost of motivation when deciding to get back into a workout routine. Of course, this would indirectly help you lose weight.
3. Strengthens Immune System
Cryotherapy is believed to improve the immune system in a variety of ways, but a majority of the research is narrowed down to its effect on inflammation and oxidative stress.
Inflammation is necessary for fighting infections and injuries to the body. Unfortunately, too much or too little of it can cause extreme complications inside the body. Not only can cryotherapy improve the body’s immune response, but it helps regulate inflammation and avoid chronic inflammation in the body.
Oxidative stress is another factor to consider with cryotherapy. It’s when free radicals start to take over the cell, which leads to chronic inflammation inside the body. With cryotherapy, oxidative stress is reduced alongside inflammation.
4. Prevents Cancer & Tumor Growth
While there isn’t much medical use for whole-body cryotherapy, some doctors utilize cryosurgery to defeat cancerous cells. This is where cancer cells are surrounded by ice crystals, causing them to freeze and die off.
In addition to cancer cells, cryosurgery is used to defeat low-risk tumors and other abnormal tissues. While it’s mostly performed on cancer cells on the skin, this type of cryotherapy can also be utilized inside the body — if done carefully and properly.
5. Reduces Depression & Anxiety
In certain mood-related disorders (such as depression or anxiety), cryotherapy could stimulate a positive physiological response that helps relieve the symptoms from the disorder. There’s one study in particular where 34.6% of the study group saw a 50% reduction in depression symptoms. Only 2.9% of the control group saw that same reduction.
In the same study, it also found that 46.2% of the study group saw a 50% reduction in anxiety symptoms — compared to 0% of the control group. According to the study, “The Hamilton’s depression rating scale (HDRS) and Hamilton’s anxiety rating scale (HARS) were used as the outcome measures.”
A lot of this is due to the rapid release of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and endorphins inside the body and in the brain.
6. Reduces Headaches & Eczema
Believe it or not, cryotherapy shows potential in treating migraines and headaches. More specifically, targeted cryotherapy that focuses on the neck area could reduce (not eliminate) the pain from a migraine. Some researchers believe this is due to the cooling of the blood through the intracranial vessels.
In addition to migraines, cryotherapy has shown promise in the treatment of eczema. Some studies suggest it can help reduce symptoms such as itchy skin and red skin, but those reports also had some cases of minor frostbite. That’s why more research is needed on this subject.
Other Popular Forms Of Therapy
Cryotherapy is one of the most popular forms of pain relief and recovery among athletes today. As popular as it is, it isn’t the only type of therapy people have their eyes on. In fact, people are always searching for the ‘next best thing’ when improving performance.
Let’s take a look at some of the other therapies that exist today and whether or not they’re worth a try. While there are three that show promise — regenokine therapy, cupping, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy — they don’t come with the level of evidence we like to see in treatments (much like cryotherapy).
With that being said, we’ll also take a look at one method that’s a little more proven and trusted when dealing with pain — the RICE method. Let’s get started!
1. Regenokine Therapy
Regenokine therapy, also known as orthokine therapy, is another form of therapy that hasn’t been approved by the FDA — much like cryotherapy. It also, like cryotherapy, is largely used to reduce pain in certain areas of the body, especially arthritis.
The process starts by drawing blood, centrifuged, and incubated over glass beads for an entire day. Eventually, the interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein (IRAP) in the blood will start to separate itself, giving you an IRAP serum. IRAP is an anti-inflammatory protein produced by the body.
Once the serum is created, it is injected into the target area to give the area a high concentration of the IRAP. It’s a process that Kobe Bryant underwent in 2011 to treat an arthritic knee. While there’s a lot of promise, it’s not approved by the FDA and therefore he needed to travel abroad for the therapy.
The good news is there doesn’t seem to be any negative side effects. The issue is trying to figure out if it’s 100% safe and effective.
2. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, also known as HBOT, is similar to whole-body cryotherapy in that it involves a chamber where you enter. The main differences are it has nothing to do with cold temperatures, you’re often laying down, and you’re completely sealed inside the chamber.
What makes an HBOT chamber so interesting is the environment it provides. Instead of receiving 21% of oxygen, which is typically what we get when we breathe in fresh air, you receive 100% oxygen inside the chamber. It also utilizes pressure, giving you the feeling of being in an airplane.
It’s a more pleasant experience than cryotherapy. Despite the pressure being nearly 3x what it is outside, you’re still able to talk and breathe normally. While each session is around 30 minutes, you can spend the time reading, listening to music, or watching television.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been approved by the FDA. You’ll find them in some hospitals, but it’s always best to do it under professional supervision and with the okay from your doctor.
Many of you likely heard about cupping during the 2016 Olympics when Michael Phelps was sporting giant purple spots on his body. While they were bruises on his skin, they weren’t from a fight or getting beat up. Instead, it was a form of therapy called cupping.
In this form of therapy, a liquid is poured into a cup and set on fire. When the flames disappear, the glass cup is placed on the targeted muscle, which creates a vacuum-like environment inside the cup. The cup remains for 5-10 minutes before being removed. (The cup could also be bamboo or earthenware.
The whole idea behind cupping is that it stimulates blood flow and muscle activity, while reducing inflammation in the targeted area. While there’s little scientific evidence behind it, some doctors consider it as a possible way of reducing pain in certain areas.
Of course, like most treatments and therapies today, research is ongoing.
4. RICE Method
A lot of the methods, techniques, and therapies listed above are more unusual than anything. They might work in some people, but it could have no effect on other people. While more research is needed to fully support those — including cryotherapy — there’s one method that remains the most-trusted — the RICE method.
Most of you remember this method from your childhood days and there’s a reason why it’s taught so early — it’s the most widely-used technique to treat pain or swelling in certain areas. It’s ironic because it actually utilizes a form of cryotherapy, but not the whole-body type most of us see these days.
The RICE method is actually an acronym for Rest, Ice, Compress, and Elevate. It’s just a four-step process that helps treat minor injuries every time. When the RICE method doesn’t work, that’s when you know it’s time to see a doctor — implying that it’s more serious than originally imagined.
If you’re experiencing any type of pain, try this first. If you’re interested in something like cryotherapy, always consult with your doctor first to ensure it’s safe.