Article at a Glance
- Cryotherapy utilizes sub-zero temperatures to help relieve symptoms of various health conditions and affect positive physiological changes.
- Cold therapy can be used to decrease inflammation, burn fat and rejuvenate aging skin.
- Cryotherapy can be delivered in various forms based on individual preferences and treatment aims.
Cryotherapy is any technique that involves the use of freezing or near-freezing temperatures as a form of therapy. From simple ice packs to whole-body cryotherapy chambers, various forms of cryotherapy have been in use for quite a while.
Although cryotherapy is becoming increasingly popular, there is still much to learn about the true range of its therapeutic benefits.
In this article, we will cover the specific processes involved in some of these treatments, and who can benefit from them.
What is Cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy is a modality in which extremely low temperatures are applied to the body. Of the various forms of cryotherapy available, the most researched method is cold water immersion, also known as ice baths.
Another method involves the use of whole-body cryo-chambers, which are specialized compartments that deliver periodic bursts of cold air in the form of liquid nitrogen directly to exposed skin. There are also localized cryotherapy wands that deliver a burst of liquid nitrogen specifically to one area.
Let’s now take a closer look at how different cryotherapy forms work.
What Happens in A Cryotherapy Session?
The procedure for a cold water immersion is pretty simple – the individual undergoing the treatment is placed in an ice bath. An immersion time between 11-15 minutes has been found to produce the most favorable response in terms of recovery from muscle soreness [R].
Whole-body cryotherapy in a cryo-chamber is a bit more technical than cold water immersion. The patient generally removes all items of clothing except for gloves and socks. Although male patients must put on regular underwear to protect their external genitalia, females can don a bathing suit or choose to undergo a session without any underwear.
The patient then climbs into the cryo chamber where liquid nitrogen at a temperature usually below -150 degrees Fahrenheit is circulated within the chamber for an average of three minutes [R].
On average, a session of cryotherapy costs between $60-$100.
Decreasing Pain and Inflammation
The effectiveness of cryotherapy on inflammation and pain reduction has been demonstrated by various studies. In the case of athletes or those exercising in general, a single session of whole-body cryotherapy can enhance muscular recovery through the restriction of inflammatory processes [R].
More specifically, levels of cytokine tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα), a powerful pro-inflammatory compound, were shown to decrease nearly two-fold when cryotherapy was combined with training, in comparison to training without treatment [R]. This is due to the high expression of norepinephrine after a cryotherapy session, which has a direct inhibitory effect on TNFα. In addition, WBC leads to an increase in interleukin (IL-10) levels, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory compound, and a decrease in proinflammatory compounds IL-2 and IL-8.
As well as treating the muscle soreness following exercise, whole-body cryotherapy has a preventative effect on exercise-induced inflammation. That is, when the treatment is done prior to exercise, the usual inflammation induced by exercise is decreased. This preventative effect was seen after a single session of -202°F (-130°C) at 3 minutes prior to exercise [R].
How Cryo Can Help Your Skin
A number of cryotherapy clinics now offer localized forms of facial and body cryo treatments using a targeted beam of liquid nitrogen vapor to freeze selected skin surfaces. Although there is limited evidence to back this form of cold therapy, there are claims of improved production of vital skin components (collagen), a decrease in skin wrinkling, and enhanced skin tone [R].
Further, whole body cryotherapy has been used experimentally in the treatment of atopic dermatitis, a chronic inflammatory skin condition causing itchy, dry skin. In the patients who underwent the treatments, there was a noticeable decrease in the disease symptoms when measured using a standard scoring system [R].
How Cold Therapy Burns Fat
Another significant benefit of cryotherapy is its application in weight loss. Research has confirmed the link between cold temperatures and brown fat, a type of fat that burns calories. After being subjected to cold ambient temperature over the duration of a month, volunteers were noted to have a significant increase in the brown fat component of their adipose tissue [R].
In addition, scientists have found that applying ice packs to different body parts stimulated the formation of calorie-burning beige fat from white fat [R]. Beige fat has calorie expending properties similar to that of brown fat. Rather than accumulating as additional adipose tissue deposits, beige fat will burn excess calories while generating heat for the body [R].
Risks of Cryotherapy
Although uncommon, there is a serious risk of developing cryotherapy skin burns or acute frostbite if a strict procedure is not followed in preparation for a treatment session. Entering a cryo-chamber with wet skin or lacking adequate protection for the hands, feet, and genitalia could have serious consequences.
Additionally, there are a few outright contraindications to undergoing cryotherapy. People with a history of uncontrolled hypertension, pulmonary diseases, cold allergies, Raynaud’s phenomenon, and arrhythmias should not try cryotherapy [R].
The current methods used to deliver extremely low temperatures to the body as a therapeutic option has yielded some significant results.
However, before undergoing any form of cryotherapy, it is important to seek the opinion of your doctor to determine if it is right for you. If you would like to learn more, take a look at our directory for a list of clinics offering these treatments.
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