When you wake up in the morning and roll out of bed, your knees snap, your back is tight, and your shoulders pop. Unless you are a one-man percussion band, this is your penance. Years of weightlifting, playing pick-up hoops, and trail runs are starting to take their toll. You might be feeling worried that you won’t be able to perform anymore and you’re just a couple beers away from full-on Dad Bod. First, calm down. You’re beautiful the way you are. Second, this is not the end of your athletic lifestyle. With a few new tools and techniques in your arsenal, you can keep up with your routine and maybe even try new things.
Have you heard of cryotherapy? You may have seen celebrities and professional athletes standing from neck to feet in these super cold chambers. Cryotherapy is a new form of longevity health and preliminary studies are showing some benefits. This includes:
- Pain relief and muscle healing
- Weight loss
- Reduced inflammation
- Preventing dementia
- Preventing and treating some forms of cancer
- Reducing anxiety and depression
- Improving symptoms of eczema
- Treatment of migraine headaches
If any of these symptoms ring a bell, you are not alone. Millions of people suffer from chronic inflammation alone. Muscle aches and pains come from aging and keeping yourself strong and flexible has benefits that last a lifetime. When you are able to perform workouts and tasks that allow you to remain active, your long-term health will have great improvements.
Clinics for cryotherapy treatment are popping up all over the country due to increased demand. This is an emerging science but studies are beginning to show remarkable results.
What is Cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy literally means cold therapy. Your body is exposed to extremely cold temperatures for several minutes. This can be administered to one area of the body or your whole body. If you have ever iced your ankle, you have done cryotherapy. Ice packs, ice massage, coolant sprays, ice baths, and probes are all ways to do localized cryotherapy. The method we are focusing on is whole-body cryotherapy, or WBC for short.
Participants in WBC immerse their body in an enclosed chamber or a small enclosure that surrounds your whole body except for your head. That sticks out at the top. The temperature will drop to between negative 200-300 degrees Fahrenheit. You tough it out and stay there for two to four minutes. That doesn’t sound long but if you have ever done treadmill intervals then you know how torturous a minute can feel.
The cold temperatures are created by liquid nitrogen and the therapy can help sore muscles heal and reduce inflammation, which can cause many different diseases. When used locally, cryotherapy uses the freezing temperatures to deaden an irritated nerve.
Originally developed in Japan in 1978 to treat rheumatism with nitrogen, cryotherapy has been further developed by Europeans for whole body treatment. Electrical systems can be used now and are not only cheaper than nitrogen but also safer. Even your head can be safely exposed to the low temperatures if you are in a whole-body chamber. In a nitrogen chamber, the nitrogen sinks to the bottom and the lower body will be colder than the upper body. Electrical chambers have more even distribution.
Depending on the type of chamber, you will enter with minimal clothing but usually need to wear slippers, socks, gloves, shorts, top, and maybe a facemask and headband. At minimal temperature, the surface of your skin will drop close to freezing and the receptors in your skin send signals to your central nervous system that the body is in critical danger. Now your body will activate response processes. Blood circulation improves, the production of serotonin and endorphins release natural painkillers and good feelings, anti-inflammatories begin to set into motion, and toxins and metabolism residues are disposed of by stronger flow of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood. Essentially, the body activates itself and scans for poorly functioning parts and then starts recovery procedures. Cool, right?
What Are the Benefits of Cryotherapy?
No one would willingly get into a super cold enclosure for any amount of time if there weren’t any benefits. Well, maybe a Las Vegas magician or someone like that. Anyway, there are studies that are showing increasing benefits of this kind of treatment.
- Reduces migraine symptoms – The worst of the worst kind of headache. You wouldn’t put your head in the cryotherapy chamber but it can help treat migraines by cooling and numbing the nerves in your neck area. A study showed that a neck wrap containing frozen ice packs applied to the area of the carotid arteries significantly reduced migraine pain. They think this works by cooling the blood passing through intracranial vessels. The carotid arteries are closest to the skin’s surface and most accessible.
- Numbs nerve irritation – This is the reason most athletes use it. Cryotherapy can numb pain. The cold acts to numb irritated nerves. For localized issues, doctors treat affected areas by inserting a small probe into the nearby tissue. This helps treat pinched nerves and neuromas, chronic pain, or acute injuries.
- Helps treat mood disorders – The temperatures of WBC can cause physiological hormonal responses, including the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and endorphins. For those experiencing anxiety and depression, this treatment can have a positive effect. Another study found that WBC was effective in the short-term treatment of anxiety and depression.
- Reduces arthritic pain – As a supplement to aggressive physiotherapy and occupational therapy, WBC significantly reduced pain in people with arthritis. People were able to tolerate the treatment so well that the other rehabilitation programs were more effective.
- May treat low-risk tumors – Cryosurgery is used by freezing cancer cells and surrounding them with ice crystals and is currently used to treat low-risk tumors for some types of cancer, including prostate cancer.
- May help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease – Researchers are still working on the effectiveness, but they theorize that WBC could help prevent Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. The inflammation and oxidative stress responses that happen with Alzheimer’s could respond well to cryotherapy because of the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects it has.
- Treats atopic dermatitis and other skin conditions – Atopic dermatitis is chronic inflammation of the skin and has symptoms of dry and itchy skin. Cryotherapy can improve antioxidant levels in the blood and reduces inflammation so either localized or WBC can help treat this skin condition. A study in mice also examined whether it can be used for acne as it targeted the sebaceous glands.
The benefits of WBC can be felt immediately. You may feel like you have more energy because endorphins and serotonin are released during the session. This allows you to feel better and energized. It can vary from person to person, but you may notice less muscle pain and more flexibility as well. If you are interested in improving your appearance, it can take a few sessions before you notice any skin tightening, weight loss, and cellulite reduction.
The number of sessions you should do depends on your symptoms and condition. Some treatment centers recommend starting with 10 to 20 treatments in a short period of time to help your body reset and readjust. Then you can go a few times a week for maintenance.
Professional athletes go once or twice a day to enhance strength and endurance but also to recover from training faster. If you have a condition such as rheumatism, you might want to go every day for two or three weeks to experience up to 12 months of reduced pain. It’s all very personal but those are some guidelines. You may also be limited because it can be spendy, but we’ll get to that later.
Cryotherapy is used by professional athletes and people with chronic aches and pains alike. Anyone can use it and benefit from it. This video from Business Insider shows one of their video producers trying cryotherapy for the first time:
You can see his hesitation to be almost nude and inability to stand still in the chamber. He also experiences disbelief that the time went by so quickly. It’s an initially uncomfortable feeling but once it is over, you won’t believe how fast it was. He was even ready to hop back in (but that is not recommended or safe without warming back up first.)
Tony Robbins, the famed motivational speaker, travels extensively and basically performs a high-intensity concert for two days when he has an engagement. He reports that his FitBit records 17 to 19 miles as he is running around on stage and through the stadium to connect with people. Imagine the wear and tear on your body one time, let alone over the years that he has been doing these sessions. Tony’s routine is extreme but one of the cornerstones of his teachings is allowing yourself to heal and recover. Cryotherapy is a great way to quickly recover for even the Weekend Warriors among us.
Once something makes it to morning television, it is bound to gain at least a little more attention. Morning television hosts Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan got into cryo chambers for their show. The expert from CryoUSA who was on the show explains that the uptick in interest for cryotherapy was due to “star power.”
As a former NFL player, Michael kept comparing cryotherapy to the ice baths he would take. Ice baths are a good option, but you only submerge your legs. Cryotherapy allows your upper body to participate and experience the inflammation reduction as well.
Does Cryotherapy Really Work?
Studies are still gathering conclusive evidence regarding this emerging therapy, but there are certain physiological things that happen during a treatment.
- Reduces skin temperature – Cryotherapy chambers cause a big drop in the surface temperature of your body, causing your brain to think you are in distress. The brain responds to the cold by sending blood to your core and away from your extremities. As soon as you leave the chamber, the oxygenated blood goes back into your arms and legs.
- Constricts blood vessels – Fancy word, vasoconstriction, limits the flow of blood to the areas affected by the cold and helps reduce inflammation. In the case of cryotherapy, that’s pretty much your whole body.
- Psychological effects – These are a little trickier since most evidence now is subjective and anecdotal. Users are reporting feelings of energy and euphoria after a session. This could be due to the release of endorphins and adrenaline to help lift your mood. These are things that could happen but more conclusive evidence is needed. However, even if it is a placebo, if it makes you feel better, why not try it?
Who Would Benefit From Cryotherapy?
By now it should be clear that everyone can benefit from cryotherapy. Everyday people who use muscles in any way for life, in general, can experience improvements from this treatment. If that’s vague it’s only because of the variety of ways it helps seems never-ending right now. But we’re talking about you so let’s break it down. What kind of people are going to get benefits from cryotherapy?
- Athletes – Runners, Cross Fitters, bikers, hikers, meatheads…you’re all covered. If you’re looking forward to a new workout but not looking forward to the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) consider hopping into a cryo chamber. It’s worth the three minutes of your time to be able to recover faster and decrease that inflammation.
- Men in their 30s – You’re still spry and nimble with your weekend hoops games and 10-mile hikes at the drop of a hat. A little soreness might be expected but it’s nothing a cryotherapy session won’t relieve so you can sit at your desk next week without cramping up.
- Men in their 40s – Rolling out of bed hurts now. This is life but it doesn’t have to stay this way. You’re still young and healthy and a few sessions in a super-cold chamber will refresh and rejuvenate you to keep up your healthy routine. Taking care of yourself now will prevent all kinds of problems later.
- Men in their 50s and 60s – If you haven’t been keeping up your fitness and health you are not too far gone to start now. Chances are you are just experiencing some sort of inflammation issue or nerve pain that can be relieved with some consistent cryotherapy use. Once that is managed you can get back to some activity that will keep you healthy and enjoying that retirement you deserve.
- Men in their 70s and beyond – Even if you aren’t able to maintain the same level of activity you might have had when you were younger, you are still active and need some recovery techniques. Cryotherapy is a great option because it takes little time and effort to participate in. Be sure to have your blood pressure checked and if you have any cardiovascular issues, make sure your doctor approves first.
What does cryotherapy feel like?
When you think of the bitter cold days of winter, you might shiver. Those few weeks in the continental U.S. where it gets below zero feel endless and awful. Meteorologists throw cups of water into the air to instantly turn to ice and hammer nails with bananas to prove how cold it is. Cryotherapy is hundreds of degrees below those temperatures. A negative 250-degree chamber is more than twice as cold as dry ice. We know why people are doing this but what does it feel like according to real users?
YouTube personality, The Vegan Cyclist, compared cryotherapy with ice baths by trying a somewhat-controlled experiment. He attempted to perform the same workouts before the recovery processes and then attempted some muscles tests post-session:
You can see how painful the ice bath was for him and how limited his muscle movements were afterward. Ice baths will reduce your core temperature whereas cryotherapy does not penetrate further than your skin and covers your whole body. He also had trouble doing jumps after the ice bath. Cryotherapy allows you to quickly move on to your next task.
Is there anyone tougher than a Marine? For USMC veteran and former combat instructor Leasha West, hiking 15 miles several times a week while carrying a 150-pound rucksack put her body through the wringer. Since retiring from the service, West runs, lifts weights, and swims on a regular basis. She was looking for a way to help her recovery and discovered cryotherapy. It was recommended to her by professional athletes and she needed it to ease her back pain and muscle stiffness. She describes the shivers and says it feels cold right away but you don’t feel frozen. West pays to have unlimited access so she was able to attend daily sessions for two months.
Not everyone was born a hearty Midwesterner who can stand frigid temperatures or built tough like Marines. Unsuspecting fashion assistants who were subjected to cryotherapy even described it as a “dry cold” that was pretty tolerable for the first 90 seconds. Have you ever walked outside without a coat for a few minutes to grab the mail or let the dog do her business? That’s the feeling you’re going to get. Sure, you might swear a bit but it’s fast and you will probably do it again.
One of the other common attributes that people describe after a cryotherapy session is the immediate increase in energy and rejuvenation that they feel. Because cryotherapy does not penetrate below the skin and affect your core temperature the way other cold therapies do, you are able to immediately continue with your day. You may not train right away or have another cryo session, but you will be able to walk around, get in your car, and concentrate even better than before.
How much does cryotherapy cost?
Like most things in life, “it just depends” is the answer when asking how much cryotherapy costs per session. Let’s start by saying it’s not cheap. On average, you can expect to fork over between $60 and $70 at a time. Most insurances won’t cover it yet so you will probably be paying out of pocket. It also matters what kind of cryotherapy you choose. Chamber, spa, boots, or facials all cost different amounts. Some places also offer unlimited packages which range in the hundreds of dollars per month.
You also have several options when it comes to cryotherapy treatment types. Here are the most common:
- Whole body cryotherapy – this is what we have been discussing so far. A patient enters a chamber for two to four minutes at temperatures roughly negative 250 degrees. The chambers are cooled with liquid nitrogen or electric elements. You must wear a bathing suit, gloves, socks, and headgear to prevent frostbite. The core temperature of your body will remain constant. WBC helps stimulate endorphins to relieve pain, insomnia, and inflammation.
- Partial body cryotherapy – Cryosaunas are cylindrical chambers where your head remains out of the top to keep it from the cold stimulus. PBC uses evaporated liquid nitrogen in the chambers.
- Ice pack therapy – You may have done this already with injuries, especially sports-related. An ice pack is placed over an injured area to absorb any heat resulting from the injury. It’s generally used for minor injuries and muscle soreness. This should only be used for a maximum of 10 minutes to avoid decreasing performance, though.
- Instant ice pack therapy – This uses an appliance with two bags: an outer bag containing water and an inner bag containing ammonium nitrate. When you squeeze the outer bag, the inner bag breaks and dissolves the ammonium nitrate in the water. The endothermic reaction absorbs heat from the surrounding area and lowers the temperature of the ice pack. This is a good alternative for sports injuries that might require crushed ice.
- Internal cryotherapy – Surgeons may use this with freezing agents to treat internal organs and parts. This includes prostate, cervical, lung, and heart.
What kinds of other therapies and supplements does cryotherapy work well with?
We may have piqued your interest enough that you are considering contacting a local cryotherapy business to begin treatment. Or maybe you are already on one course of therapy and are wondering if cryotherapy would be a good addition. There are some other things that you may want to try as well:
- If you’re an athlete use it in conjunction with an infrared sauna. It uses infrared heaters to emit infrared light which is treated as radiant heat and absorbed by the skin. It is thought to help with arthritis, release toxins, and increase energy expenditure and weight loss.
- If you’re in your 40s and starting to feel like you are stiff and sore more than usual, use it in conjunction with hydrotherapy. This is also known as water therapy and can be saunas, steam baths, foot baths, contrast therapy, hot and cold showers. Cold water will cause superficial blood vessels to constrict and move blood flow away from the surface to organs. Hot water will cause superficial blood vessels to dilate, activate your sweat glands, and remove waste from your body tissue.
- If you’re in your 50s and starting to feel muscle tightness, decrease in restful sleep, increase in general pain, and an increase of stress and anxiety, use it in conjunction with deprivation chambers. They are also called sensory deprivation chambers, and are filled with Epsom salt and water heated to skin temperature. All external stimulation is cut off while inside the tank, including light, sound, and even gravity.
Even though cryotherapy is a fairly new treatment in comparison to older therapies, there is a lot of promising research that is beginning to show the positive effects. While most of the studies focus on men who are attempting to reduce muscle soreness after exercise, there are plenty of testimonials from different types of people who swear by cryotherapy. Female Marines and motivational speakers alike sing the praises of how cryotherapy has changed their lives for the better. Less inflammation, a decrease in muscle soreness, increased energy, and increased mental clarity are all reasons that people go back again and again.
Don’t let the many sub-zero degrees of temperature scare you off. If any of those benefits sound appealing to you and you want to up your game, cryotherapy is a great option for you. You will have better rest and recovery so that you can train harder and perform better. Would Kobe Bryant lead you astray?
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