Cryotherapy, or “cold therapy,” is a procedure by which the body is exposed to cold temperatures for several minutes at a time. But what are the cryotherapy benefits you can get from this procedure?
While localized cold therapy has been used for hundreds of years, advancements in technology have since provided opportunities to perform both localized and whole-body cryotherapy. Localized cryotherapy can be applied in many ways, including ice packs, ice baths, coolant sprays, ice massages, and even cooling topicals.
Whole-body cryotherapy (WBC), on the other hand, is performed by exposing the entire body to extremely cold temperatures. People who seek out this treatment aim to receive a number of health benefits.
During the procedure, an individual will stand in a cryotherapy chamber that surrounds the body, except for an opening at the top for their head. With some help from liquid nitrogen or refrigerated air, the air in the chamber will then plummet to temperatures somewhere between negative 200-300 ℉. These temperatures will remain for a specified amount of time until the cryotherapy session ends.
While it’s possible to benefit from one session, more cryotherapy benefits can be found if you endure the cold repeatedly. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of being cold as we explore the frigid details of cryotherapy.
Believe it or not, exposing your body to extreme cold is beneficial for many reasons. Here’s a look at some of the main cryotherapy benefits.
Reduced Muscle Soreness and Arthritic Pain
Doctors and healthcare professionals have long recommended using ice packs on injured or painful muscles. This is because low temperatures will reduce blood flow to the affected area, thereby reducing swelling. After this has occurred, slowly the affected area increases blood circulation again to further promote healing and pain relief.
A German study published in 2000 found that cryotherapy also offers pain relief from rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder that primarily affects the joints. The research suggested that those who used cryotherapy ice packs benefited from reduced pain after intense exercise, demonstrating a link between cold temperatures and pain relief.
Other chronic illnesses, such as fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis, may also benefit from cryotherapy treatment. Research has shown improvements in quality of life amongst fibromyalgia sufferers who try cryotherapy, and similar benefits have been found in multiple sclerosis patients.
A separate study found similar results that suggested the use of cryotherapy helped relieve muscle pain while speeding up the muscle recovery cycle, though this study also found that cold water immersion was more effective at relieving chronic pain than whole-body cryotherapy.
Numbed Nerve Irritation
Professional athletes have treated injuries for years with help from cryotherapy, and this is because cryotherapy can numb pain. The cold can also numb irritated nerves according to research conducted by New York Chiropractic College, and doctors can actually insert a small probe into injured tissue that produces a cooling effect. This can help treat pinched nerves, chronic pain, or other injuries.
Improved Athletic Performance
Research suggests athletes, or those in competition, may benefit from getting cryotherapy before competition begins. These cold temperatures are administered as a means of improving athletic performance. Using WBC as a warm-up intervention prior to competition improved athletic performance in one 2019 study. Changes included hormonal shifts due to the release of endorphins, and reductions in body temperature and perceived soreness.
While sports medicine has often enlisted the help of cryotherapy after exercise, this evidence suggests it may be beneficial before exercise as well.
Whole-body cryotherapy sessions have demonstrated the ability to improve sleep, according to a 2013 study published in the European Journal of Sport Science. The study examined cryotherapy after training in physically active men. It found that participants who’d undergone cryotherapy treatment moved significantly less during the night when compared with those who didn’t receive cryotherapy.
While cryotherapy won’t directly cause you to lose weight, it can help your body prepare for the weight loss process. Cold air will force your body to work harder as it tries to keep itself warm, and this extra effort needed to maintain a stable body temperature will burn calories.
While some clinics claim one of the main cryotherapy benefits is that it can keep your metabolic rate at elevated levels all day, no research has suggested this occurs.
Keep in mind that cryotherapy can also reduce recovery time, so you can get back to the gym faster and benefit from potential weight loss there. Using cryotherapy alongside other corrective exercises may be your best bet for getting over injury more quickly.
Reduced Anxiety and Depression
Cryotherapy is known for reducing inflammation throughout the body, and this includes reducing inflammation that may occur as a result of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
A small 2008 study found that one-third of individuals suffering from depression or anxiety saw a 50% reduction in symptoms after performing cryotherapy. This turned out to be a much greater reduction in symptoms when compared with those who didn’t undergo cryotherapy.
While more research is needed to determine the relationship between cryotherapy and mental health conditions, research conducted thus far has produced promising results.
Treatment of Migraine Headaches
Localized cryotherapy treatments that target the neck and upper back may help prevent migraine headaches, many of which produce nauseating symptoms and blurred vision. A 2013 study found that targeted neck cooling at the onset of a migraine “significantly reduced recorded pain in participants with migraine headaches.”
Improved Immune System Response
While cryotherapy benefits our body by reducing inflammation, it has the ability to provide our immune system with a boost as well.
A 2010 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that sessions of cryotherapy boosted the white blood cell count in healthy, active men. This suggests cryotherapy triggers an immune response that can provide benefits beyond reducing aches and pains.
Strengthening your immune system is just one of the many benefits of cold temperatures on your body’s various systems.
Side Effects and Risks of Cryotherapy
Cryotherapy helps reduce inflammation, aches, and pains, but that doesn’t mean it comes without side effects and risks.
The most common side effects of any form of cryotherapy are numbness, redness, swelling, and irritation of the skin. These side effects are often temporary. Be sure to consult a doctor if symptoms like these haven’t cleared after 24 hours.
Cryotherapy should never be used for longer than the recommended amount of time, especially if you’re in a cryo chamber. Often this recommendation is four minutes for WBC, and 20 minutes if you’re using an ice pack or other localized therapy. Be sure to wrap ice packs in a towel to avoid damaging your skin.
Those who suffer from diabetes or other conditions that affect the nervous system should avoid cryotherapy until consulting a doctor. You may not be able to feel the full effects, and damage may occur as a result.
While frostbite and burns are uncommon, these may occur if you ignore the recommended amount of time for localized cryotherapy and WBC. The FDA advises individuals considering whole body cryotherapy to check with their doctor first.
Is Cryotherapy Right for You?
While localized cryotherapy has been used with success for years, WBC is still being researched. Anecdotal evidence and limited research suggest WBC is a healthy pain-management option that promotes well-being, but more research is needed to support these claims.
With that said, cryotherapy is a safe and noninvasive procedure that has provided relief for countless individuals, from athletes to senior citizens. Speak with your doctor to determine if cryotherapy is right for you before you take advantage of the chilly benefits.