More than 550,000 whole-body cryotherapy sessions have been performed around the world since 2011. (1) Cryotherapy has become an increasingly trendy “therapy” in recent years in the alternative healthcare space. Even well-known celebrities and athletes, like LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal, have reported using this therapy to support exercise recovery and performance.
While cryotherapy might seem like a novel and exciting concept, the use of very cold temperatures to reduce pain, support healing and elevate moods is actually nothing new. People all over the world have used cold packs and ice baths to promote healing for hundreds of years.
What are the health benefits of cryotherapy (also called whole-body cryotherapy or simply WBC) according to the latest research? There’s some evidence that it has anti-inflammatory, anti-analgesic, and antioxidant effects. However study results have been mixed overall, since not every study has found that cryotherapy is any better than rest and stretching for decreasing symptoms like muscle, bone and joint pain, fatigue and soreness.
It’s important to point out that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently regulate the use of cryotherapy offered by“cryotherapists” at cryotherapy centers, nor does it recognize any of its medical benefits. This means that if you do choose to try it, be aware that there are some potential risks involved.
What Is Cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy is a type of treatment that involves exposure to extremely cold air. One definition of it is “A technique that uses an extremely cold liquid or instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal skin cells that require removal.” (2) The extreme cold comes from liquid nitrogen or argon gas.
What is the point of cryotherapy? While not all of these benefits have been proven in studies, proponents of cryotherapy tell us that potential benefits of it can include:
- Reduced inflammation
- Help with pain reduction and relieving muscle soreness
- Improved recovery from exercise injuries, impact or trauma
- Mood enhancement
- Increases in energy
- Help with weight loss and fat-burning
- Reductions in symptoms of osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis
- Decreased asthma symptoms
- Increased libido Even though it’s possible that some may experience improvements in their health following cryotherapy session, this has not been proven in many studies and is still widely disputed by some experts. In fact, according to a 2015 Cochrane review that included results from four laboratory-based randomised controlled trials that focused on the effects of whole-body cryotherapy, there is “insufficient evidence” that cryotherapy helps to treat symptoms like pain and soreness. (3)The same review stated that studies included has also not been able to show that cryotherapy does in fact improve recovery times in athletes when compared with rest. On a positive note, the Cochrane review did found that in one study participants reported improved “well-being” and less tiredness after cryotherapy following exercise. They also found there were no reports of adverse events in any of the four studies.On the other hand, another 2017 review published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found the opposite to be true: cryotherapy did help to reduce soreness and improve recovery in athletes (more on this below). (4)
How does whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) work? What does it do to your body?
- Cryotherapy is believed to work by reducing inflammatory processes, improving blood flow, and releasing feel-good endorphins.
- “WBC” involves a single or repeated exposure to extremely cold, dry air inside a special chamber or cabin.
- A cryotherapy chamber is an upright cylindrical capsule. It is padded on the inside of the chamber and closed around most of your body, but the top of the chamber remains open so your head stays out.
- From your neck down, very cold gas surrounds your body which is released from the chamber. Inside the WBC chamber it gets extremely cold, typically around minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit — and in some cases down to a low temperature of minus 300 degrees.
- Staff workers set machines that control how cold the cryotherapy temperature will get and how long the session lasts. Once the chamber reaches a low temp (such as minus 100–300 degrees Fahrenheit) this will be sustained for only about 2-5 minutes.
- Inside the chamber you wear minimal clothing, usually gloves, a woolen headband covering the ears, a nose and mouth mask, dry shoes and socks, and boxers for men. This helps to reduce the risk of cold-related injury.
- Staff worker stand next to the chamber while you stand inside. From the inside you can push the door open if you feel you want to end the session before the expected time.
- If you’re doing WBC to help with exercise recovery, you’d ideally do a session within 0–24 hours after exercise. It’s recommended that sessions be repeated several times in the same day or multiple times over a number of weeks.
5 Potential Benefits of Cryotherapy
You’re probably already familiar with how cold packs and/or crushed ice provides effective short-term analgesia (pain relief) after injury or surgery. One of the most common reasons that people turn to this treatment is to prevent or treat muscle soreness after exercise, trauma or acute injuries.
A report published in Frontiers in Physiology states that “whole body cryotherapy is a medical physical treatment widely used in sports medicine. Recovery from injuries (e.g., trauma, overuse) and after-season recovery are the main purposes for application.” (8) Athletes and people dealing with injuries often try WBC hoping that it will be a preventive strategy for reducing the effects of exercise-induced inflammation and soreness.
A 2017 review that appeared in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, which included results from 16 eligible articles/studies, found evidence that cryotherapy helped reduce muscle pain (found in 80 percent of studies) and improved recovery in athletes and athletic capacity/performance (in 71 percent of studies). It also found that WBD didn’t cause side effects. (4)
2. Reduced Inflammation & Tissue Damage
The same review mentioned above also found evidence that cryotherapy benefits include reduction of systemic inflammation and lower concentrations of markers for muscle cell damage. (4) Overall, researchers involved in the review believe that it can help improve recovery from muscle damage with multiple exposures. Multiple exposures were more likely to lead to improvements in recovery from pain, loss of muscle function, and markers of inflammation compared to single exposures/sessions.