These days, when the top sports stars of the world complete their rigorous training programs, one thing they’re sure to include is to stand for up to five minutes inside a chamber where the temperature can plummet to as low as -150 degrees (Fahrenheit).
Why, you ask, would they want to do that?
That’s a great question. Let’s explore the effective and wonderful world of cryotherapy and see how it really works.
What is Cryotherapy?
The word cryo comes from the Greek word κρύο which simply means ‘cold.’ Put it together with therapy and there you have it. Cold therapy. And truly, it is cold!
That’s not to say that we haven’t all, at some point, employed a little cryotherapy of our own. Ever put a piece of ice onto a mosquito bite, or a bag of frozen peas onto a sprained ankle? If so, then you’ve treated yourself to some cryotherapy.
By drastically reducing the temperature of the tissues surrounding an injury, the flow of blood to the area is restricted and therefore swelling is reduced. This means less inflammation and less pain.
But in recent times, cryotherapy has been seen to have health benefits aside from simply reducing swelling in a localized area of injury. It’s used as a way to help athletes remain in peak condition, as an exclusive wellness treatment, and in Europe even used for the healing of arthritic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Not only that, but studies have shown that the benefits don’t just apply to physical health, but to mental health, too, in Europe it is also used for winter depression.
When Should You Consider Cryotherapy?
If you’re struggling with an injury to a particular body part, then cryotherapy is certainly a treatment to consider. Acute injuries, or those that are the result of an unexpected event, are known to respond very well to cryotherapy treatments.
However, more and more people are choosing to enter whole-body cryotherapy chambers and are seeing improvements to several different areas of their health. Even those without acute injuries are choosing to use cryotherapy as a treatment for overall well being.
When applied to a localized part of the body, ice reduces blood flow, reducing swelling, and allowing the area to heal. It explains why a physical therapist runs onto a soccer pitch and gives the player a blast of icy spray when they’ve taken a knock.
In more serious sprains and strains, immediate application of an ice pack can not only reduce inflammation but greatly reduce pain in the area. An ice pack should be placed in a towel and put onto the affected area for 15-20 minutes, to allow the area to cool and for swelling to go down as much as possible.
Ice packs should only be used for the first 24-48 hours after an injury. More recent studies have shown that continuing to use cryotherapy for any longer after an injury can cause more harm than good, as tissue needs blood flow for it to heal properly.
Localized cryotherapy is a treatment that is meant to deal with immediate symptoms of pain and swelling. Once the injury has been attended to and bound or put in plaster, it must be given its own time to recover without any icy interruptions.
Even more targeted than regular localized cryotherapy is cryosurgery. The use of liquid nitrogen to freeze off warts and moles has long been established in clinics and hospitals worldwide.
Cryosurgery is also showing extremely promising results in treating some forms of cancer, by destroying precancerous cells, removing growths, and preventing them from growing further. Numbing nerves can instantly reduce pain, too, so it’s thought cancer patients can find pain relief from a cryotherapy session.
Treatment of Migraines
Applying ice packs to the neck has shown good results in migraine sufferers. By cooling the blood vessels supplying blood to the head, the thumping pressure of headaches and migraines can be alleviated.
While it might make sense for ice to be applied to local areas, you might still be wondering why top athletes, celebrities and even doctors swear by the health benefits of whole-body cryotherapy.
After all, it’s one thing to hold an ice pack to your ankle for 15 minutes, and quite another to deliberately plunge yourself into a chamber where it’s colder than the Antarctic and you’re dressed in little more than a bathing suit.
But the science behind whole-body therapy makes sense. Plunging into ice baths and getting under a freezing cold shower after strenuous exercise have been common treatments for centuries to relieve muscle aches and greatly reduce recovery time.
Liquid nitrogen is the most effective way of achieving the desired temperatures that have the greatest effects on patients. While no liquid nitrogen comes into contact with patients’ skin, the gases it gives off cause the temperature to plummet inside the chamber.
Let’s take a look at the different areas in which whole-body cryotherapy benefits have been seen in improving overall health, not just muscle aches and pains.
It Stops Injuries from Progressing
For elite athletes whose successes depend on them being in the best physical shape possible, it’s important that they recover quickly between events. Whether that’s hundred-meter sprints or ninety minutes running up and down a pitch, the need for a speedy recovery is just as vital.
Immersing themselves for just three or four minutes in such incredibly icy conditions can halt athletes’ injuries and prevent weak tissue from deteriorating further.
It’s Thought to Assist in Weight Loss
The icy shock to the system is thought to kick-start the metabolism, sending extra energy to the muscles of the body and improving the rate at which fat is burned.
Because the body works so hard to heat itself up again after emerging from the cryotherapy chamber, the body burns up calories as energy. It’s estimated that just one cryotherapy session of up to five minutes can burn as many as 800 calories.
Successful Use for Mental Health Disorders
Being thrust into such admittedly terrifying conditions, even when controlled by a professional who knows what they’re doing, can be a shock to the body. But this isn’t always a bad thing.
The ‘fight or flight’ response forces the body to release a whole host of hormones to cope, including endorphins and adrenaline. These hormones in elevated levels can significantly lift mood and act as a short-term treatment for depression and anxiety.
Not only that, but cryotherapy is also shown to be an effective method of slowing the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Reducing inflammation and oxidative stress responses in the brain have been known to impact the speed at which the disease progresses.
Are There Side Effects to Cryotherapy?
For some, even with no underlying health problems or conditions, cryotherapy causes them to experience side effects that prevent them from trying out the treatment a second time.
Cryotherapy is known to be hard on the skin, causing redness, tingling and inflammation after use. Some patients found the effects on their skin were too harsh and so wouldn’t return for a repeat visit.
Others have reported temporary headaches after cryotherapy along with temporary nerve pain in other parts of the body, or temporary respiratory issues from the conditions inside the chamber.
These symptoms do usually disappear soon after use. Proponents of this unusual therapy who may experience mild side effects assure others that the benefits vastly outweigh any negative symptoms that soon disappear after treatment.
When Not to Use Cryotherapy
Even though there are those who benefit greatly from cryotherapy, there are still others who shouldn’t use it at all. First, it can be brutal on the skin so if you already have extremely sensitive skin or other existing skin conditions you may have to give it a miss.
Cryotherapy isn’t recommended for those who have poor circulation as the below-freezing temperature already constricts the blood vessels, so you certainly don’t want to slow your circulation down even further.
High blood pressure, diabetes, a history of strokes or heart attacks and any kind of respiratory sickness are all conditions where a doctor will advise against cryotherapy. Those under 18 are not to enter cryotherapy chambers at all.
Not Everyone Believes in the Benefits
Some doctors remain unconvinced by the claims that cryotherapy has any real benefit when it comes to health and yet others strongly believe in its benefits.
Top athletes swear by its effectiveness at keeping them in shape and slashing recovery time, but for some who enter the cryotherapy chamber they simply emerge colder, but physically unaffected.
While more research is needed into its effectiveness, cryotherapy remains a treatment that is growing in popularity for a whole wealth of conditions and illnesses.
Get the All-Clear and See for Yourself!
With cryotherapy chambers popping up all over the world, you may even find there’s one near you. If you think cryotherapy could benefit you in any of the ways discussed, chat with your doctor and get the all-clear, then try it out for yourself.
You never know, you may find it gives you a whole new lease of life!