Cryotherapy means using cold as a treatment for various issues. Cooling is commonly used to reduce inflammation after injury or surgery, such as using an ice pack on a sprained ankle. But whole-body cryotherapy is a more extreme treatment.
Read on to learn about what whole-body cryotherapy involves, what it aims to treat, and how well it actually works.
What is whole-body cryotherapy?
Whole-body cryotherapy exposes the entire body to an extremely cold temperature for about 2 to 5 minutes. Commonly, this kind of cooling takes place in a chamber where the temperature is between -200 and -400 degrees Fahrenheit. By comparison, winter in Antarctica averages about -76 degrees Fahrenheit.
Whole-body cryotherapy was once used as a treatment for chronic inflammatory conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis. Now, it is popular among athletes for improving post-exercise recovery.
What does whole-body cryotherapy involve?
People undergoing whole-body cryotherapy step into an extremely cold chamber.
In the cryotherapy chamber, people typically wear only:
- Shorts or underwear (men only)
These clothes help protect against frostbite. They also allow one’s body temperature to cool as much as possible.
Cryotherapy can be repeated on the same day or a few times a week.
What does whole-body cryotherapy claim to treat?
Cryotherapy is purported to treat a wide variety of conditions including:
- Pain Management – Cryotherapy provides anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, which greatly decrease pain and stiffness of joints caused by conditions such as arthritis. The body’s response to the extreme temperature is to increase endorphins. Endorphins inhibit the transmission of pain signals and create a feeling of euphoria. This provides an effective, natural, and noninvasive way to manage pain. During Cryotherapy, blood vessels are constricted and this decreases inflammation and the body’s perception of pain. With less pain and stiffness, range of motion and movement is increased.
- Metabolic Boost & Calorie Burn – The rapidly dropping temperature in the Cryotherapy chamber causes the body to increase its metabolic rate to raise its temperature. This typically lasts for 4-6 hours after the session, which leads to increased calorie burning (500 – 800 calories on average). After several sessions, the metabolism tends to stay higher for much longer between sessions.
- Immune System – Cryotherapy stimulates the immune system and starts the regeneration processes within the body. Immunity is greater due to increased hemoglobin levels in the blood and toxins being removed. When paired with a healthy lifestyle, Cryotherapy can help decrease the instances of colds and other illnesses as well as aid in the treatment of headaches and migraines.
- Athletic Performance and Muscle Recovery – Whole-body Cryotherapy stimulates the adrenal glands which increase energy levels and adrenaline. When used before an athletic event or workout, it can help increase reaction time and endurance levels. When used as a post-workout therapy, it can help reduce recovery time. Athletes who use Cryotherapy after training sessions recover from soreness and stiffness faster than those who only use ice or stretching.
- Beauty & Anti-Aging – The extreme cold during Cryotherapy leads to collagen production in the deep layers of the skin. This creates greater skin elasticity, a more youthful appearance, and tighter and firmer skin. It can also help reduce cellulite and lead to smoother, more even-toned skin. Cryotherapy provides anti-inflammatory properties that can also be helpful against conditions like dermatitis, psoriasis, and acne.
- Mood Enhancement – Cryotherapy’s extreme temperatures causes the body to ignite a “fight or flight” response which releases endorphins. Endorphins are a natural painkiller. It also implements a sense of euphoria. This therapy has been studied as a way to successfully treat mood disorders and medication-resistant depression.
It is important to note that many of these treatment claims are not completely supported by scientific evidence and whole-body cryotherapy is not have FDA approval as a treatment for any of these conditions. However, there is otherwise a significant amount of anecdotal evidence.
Those who do use whole-body cryotherapy often use it together with other treatments, like medications and physical therapy.
How does such extreme cold affect the body?
Such extremely cold temperatures can affect the body in many ways. First, blood vessels narrow and decrease blood flow to the skin and muscles. This can decrease swelling. The signals that travel along your nerves slow down, and this can lower the amount of pain you feel.
Cold temperatures also lower the inflammatory substances in your blood and increase the anti-inflammatory ones. These changes together may also decrease pain, injury, and swelling.
After cold exposure, blood flow increases. This can help muscles heal. Some studies have shown reduced fatigue and improved mood after whole-body cryotherapy.
What are the risks of whole-body cryotherapy?
While scientific evidence to support the benefits of cryotherapy is still being debated, we do know that there can be risks associated with this treatment, so please do your own research and consult with your physician as a precaution.
Vital sign changes
Whole-body cryotherapy can cause changes in your vital signs, like heart rate, blood pressure, and blood oxygen levels. These changes can affect everyone differently. For example, how cryotherapy affects you may depend on your gender and whether you smoke. Whole-body cryotherapy is not recommended for people with a history of chest pain or heart failure.
Skin damage or rashes
Besides changes in vital signs, whole-body cryotherapy can have other serious risks. These include major skin damage such as frostbite, burns, and frozen limbs. Frozen limb is a severe type of frostbite. It causes skin blisters, swelling, and third-degree burns after warming back up.
Another serious problem is cold panniculitis. This is when the layer of fat under your skin freezes and causes a long-lasting rash on the skin.
Does whole-body cryotherapy work?
We can’t say for sure if whole-body cryotherapy works better than other treatments that are safer and more established. There isn’t enough good evidence out there yet. Let’s look at a few studies that do exist, though, and what we can learn from them:
- It can reduce pain, but not always better than targeting just the painful area. In one study in people with inflammatory muscle conditions, whole-body cryotherapy relieved pain. But it didn’t do any better than just cooling a specific area of the body (local cooling).
- It can help with depression and pain, but more studies are needed. It may help some people with symptoms of depression, mild memory problems, chronic pain, and fibromyalgia. But these studies were small. More studies involving larger groups of people are needed before whole-body cryotherapy can be recommended.
What should I know before trying whole-body cryotherapy?
If you are considering whole-body cryotherapy, first know that it is not a 100% proven therapy and there are known possible risks. Make sure you understand any underlying medical conditions you may have. Talk with your healthcare provider about your medical problems and how whole-body cryotherapy may affect you.
The bottom line
Whole-body cryotherapy is an emerging procedure with some scientific evidence as to its effectiveness. However, we encourage Bulldog Gym members to do their own research and make their own decisions about this treatment.
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Bleakley, C. M., et al. (2014). Whole-body cryotherapy: Empirical evidence and theoretical perspectives. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine.
Lombardi G, Ziemann E, Banfi G. Whole-Body Cryotherapy in Athletes: From Therapy to Stimulation. An Updated Review of the Literature. Front Physiol. 2017 May 2;8:258. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2017.00258. PMID: 28512432; PMCID: PMC5411446.
Bulldog Gym does not dispense medical advice or prescribe the use of any service as a replacement form of treatment for any physical, mental, or medical condition(s) diagnosed and/or treated by a doctor, neither directly nor indirectly. Bulldog Gym’s main goal is to offer information and services to help clients in their quest for overall good health and well-being.