Cryotherapy, a form of cold therapy, has gained momentum in recent years. Many professional athletes and celebrities – including NFL teams, according to the Tampa Bay Weatherand Jennifer Aniston, as shown in Form — have reported turning to methods of supercooling the body for therapeutic purposes.
Popular forms of cold therapy include cold water therapy, such as ice baths and refrigerated dives, and whole body cryotherapy (WBC), which uses air, as opposed to water, to obtain potentially therapeutic results. WBC involves brief episodes in a small chamber (also known as a cryochamber) that has been cooled to temperatures between minus 200 and minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Proponents claim that these cold therapies can relieve chronic pain, speed up muscle recovery, promote weight loss, relieve depression, and more.
But what is fact and what is fiction?
“It’s pretty safe to say that when it comes to cryotherapy, anecdotal evidence far outweighs research at this time,” says the researcher Shawn Arent, PhD, CSCSProfessor and Chair of Exercise Science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina.
Still, many people report positive experiences with cryotherapy, which suggests there might be something to it, he adds.
Read on to find out how cryotherapy could benefit your overall health and well-being.
Possible Benefits of Therapeutic Cryotherapy
1. May Boost Muscle Recovery After Exercise
Cryotherapy is often used to speed muscle recovery after exercise.
To understand why, we must first understand what happens to the body as it cools and warms. First, your body responds to the cold by constricting your blood vessels (known as vasoconstriction), pumping all your blood to your organs. When this happens, your blood picks up more oxygen and nutrients, explains Gregg LariveeDoctor of Chiropractic and Founder and CEO of Integrated medical center in Jupiter, Florida.
Then, once you leave the cold and your body warms up again, your blood vessels dilate (called vasodilation), returning oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to your tissues. This increased blood flow flushes out the inflammation and toxins you’ve built up during your workout, which helps kick-start recovery, Dr. Larivee says.
For example, a study published in February 2021 in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research out of China found that WBC reduced muscle damage and inflammation in mid- and long-distance runners better than other forms of cryotherapy and no cryotherapy (control). Unfortunately, the study was small (only 12 runners), so it’s hard to say how these results might apply to larger populations.
That said, previous studies have also reported decreased muscle soreness and inflammation with WBC use after exercise, according to a researcher. past opinion paper. However, the authors of another systematic review passed concluded that there was insufficient evidence to determine whether WBC actually aids recovery after exercise better than rest.
Dr. Arent also warns that cryotherapy can limit your muscles’ adaptation to resistance training. “[Cryotherapy] seems to reduce muscle protein synthesis, [the process that drives responses to exercise]so the strength gains are not as significant,” he says.
2. May Improve Sleep
Based on current evidence, cryotherapy can help with sleep, according to Arent.
For example, the aforementioned Chinese study in mid- and long-distance runners not only found that WBC reduced muscle damage and inflammation after exercise, but also that subjects reported better quality of sleep after WBC than d. other forms of cryotherapy.
Furthermore study published in March 2019 in BMC Research Notes found that football players moved less during the night (measured via wrist-mounted devices) and reported better sleep after three minutes of partial body cryotherapy (PBCC) than after shorter sessions. (The PBC is similar to the WBC, except your head and neck are outside the cryogenic chamber.) And a study published in July 2019 in the European Journal of Sports Science reveals similar results: active men who received a WBC after an evening workout tossed and turned less during the night and reported better sleep than those who did not.
Researchers believe cryotherapy can help us sleep by helping to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s the “rest and digest” side of the autonomic (or “automatic”) nervous system, which takes over the management of your bodily functions when we feel calm and safe, explains the Cleveland Clinic. And when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, we tend to be in a relaxed state.
However, more research is needed to determine if and how cryotherapy can improve sleep in non-athletic populations, and larger studies are needed to better understand the relationship between cold therapy and sleep quality.
3. May Improve Chronic Pain
Cryotherapy can relieve chronic pain in different ways.
First, cold is a known short-term painkiller (or analgesic). Think: placing an ice pack on a sprained ankle. Scientists think cold works by slowing nerve transmission (when a nerve sends a signal to the brain) in pain cells, according to a review published in December 2020 in Pain and therapy.
Cryotherapy can also alleviate pain by reducing inflammation, a hallmark of inflammation-related chronic pain such as rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis (an inflammatory disease of the spine), according to a research article published in December 2019 in natural medicine.
In fact, after reviewing 25 studies, the authors of the 2020 review in Pain and therapy concluded that cryotherapy may be a simple, low-risk option for managing chronic pain. In particular, pain associated with chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. UK and ice application were the two cryotherapy methods found to offer pain relief. However, research on the long-term effects of cryotherapy on chronic pain and more standardized treatment protocols are needed.
4. May Treat Certain Chronic Skin Conditions
WBC may also help reduce inflammation and relieve itching in people with atopic dermatitis (eczema), a chronic skin condition characterized by dry, inflamed skin. For a small past study, 16 adults with mild to moderate atopic dermatitis underwent WBC at -166 degrees F for one to three minutes, three times a week for one month. Symptoms of atopic dermatitis improved for most patients, although the study sample was too small to draw meaningful conclusions.
Currently, and a note of importance, the Association of the American Academy of Dermatology advises against the use of WBC as a treatment for atopic dermatitis.
5. May help with weight loss
Spending time in the cold can speed up your metabolism while your body works to stay warm. Theoretically, if you increase your calorie intake, you may be able to create the calorie deficit needed to lose weight.
In a study published in April 2021 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16 control lean women and 15 obese women underwent PBC for 150 minutes per day at -202 degrees F, for five days. At the end of the study, lean women burned 8.2% more calories at rest (called resting energy expenditure, or REE), while obese women burned 5.5% more calories at rest than on the first day.
While these results are interesting, we cannot know how long these REE changes would last, or if they would result in weight loss, and because this study was so small, further research in larger populations is needed. .
Uses and Health Benefits of Medical Cryotherapy
Some forms of cryotherapy – namely cryoablation or cryosurgery (a surgical procedure using extreme cold) – are used medically by surgeons and other types of board-certified healthcare providers, and for specific procedures to treat certain terms.
For example, a dermatologist may use cryoablation to treat abnormal tissue, and some surgeons may use this technique to destroy certain cancers. It is important to note that cryoablation is a different form of cryotherapy from the healing and supportive approaches described above. That said, here are two medical benefits of cryotherapy techniques used in clinical settings:
1. Treat certain cancers
Cryotherapy is a common method for treating certain cancers, including prostate and liver cancer, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The therapy is called cryoablation and involves freezing tumor cells inside the body. Tumor cells cannot survive extreme cold and die as a result, according to a previous research paper.
Cryoablation is a minimally invasive procedure. To do this, the doctor inserts an instrument called a cryoprobe through a small incision in the skin and applies cold (a substance like liquid nitrogen or argon gas) with a spray device, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
However, cryoablation can only be used to treat tumors that can be seen by imaging tests, such as mammograms, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). What’s more, doctors still don’t know how cryoablation might control cancer or impact long-term life expectancy, according to the NCI.
2. Treat abnormal skin tissue
Cryotherapy is also sometimes used to treat benign (noncancerous), precancerous, or superficially cancerous skin cancer, depending on the type of skin cancer. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Freezing specific areas of the skin causes it to blister and peel off, allowing healthy new skin to grow in its place, the Cleveland Clinic explains.