It seems like every week we are hearing about some celebrity or athlete using cryotherapy as a part of their health routine. Whether it is for recovery or beauty, more and more people are turning to cryotherapy for answers.
Recently CNET explored the many benefits of cryotherapy in sports and muscle recovery in their article, “Does Cryotherapy Work for Muscle Recovery?”
What is cryotherapy?
Medically, the term refers to any treatment that involves the use of cold or near-freezing temperatures (cryo = cold), by any means. So technically, the cryotherapy umbrella can include ice baths, a cold shower or a snow-angel party in your backyard. Doctors use cryotherapy to freeze off warts, reduce nerve irritation, kill abnormal skin cells, and even treat localized cancers.
Cold therapy apparently dates back to 2500 B.C., when Egyptians used cold temperatures to treat injuries. The technique evolved over time, and now people use cryotherapy in the form of everything from basic ice packs to the whole-body cryo chambers frequented by athletes of all disciplines.
How does Whole Body Cryotherapy work?
This super-cooling technique uses liquid nitrogen to create incredible cold air in a small, enclosed chamber. It looks like something out of a low-budget sci-fi film: Liquid nitrogen vapor puffs out of the top of the tiny chamber around the face of whoever’s in the enclosure.
The freezing temperatures force your body into survival mode, redirecting blood flow from the extremities to the core. When you get out of the chamber, a rebound occurs, and your blood resumes its normal flow as your body warms up. According to cryotherapy companies and dedicated chamber-goers, this recirculation therapy delivers ultra nutrient-rich blood to your muscles and joints.
Benefits of Cryotherapy
Some of the purported benefits of cryotherapy include:
- Faster workout recovery times
- Reduced inflammation
- General pain relief
- Increased flexibility
- Muscle healing
- Weight loss
Let’s look at what the science says about all of those.
Faster workout recovery times: Current research does back up the idea that whole-body cryotherapy supports better recovery after intense workouts, especially if you hop in the chamber immediately after hitting the gym.
Reduced inflammation: People have used cold therapy to reduce inflammation for ages. You probably have many times — like icing your ankle after rolling it during a game of flag football. Most research on whole-body cryotherapy supports the idea that the technique reduces inflammation.
General pain relief: Icing a sore muscle or joint helps relieve pain because it numbs the nerves in that area. Exposing your body to freezing temperatures does the same thing, except it temporarily numbs nerves all over your body. Research supports the idea that whole-body cryotherapy relieves pain.
Increased flexibility: If you struggle to touch your toes, cryo might help. In one study, participants exhibited an immediate improvement in the sit-and-reach stretch after one session of whole-body cryotherapy. However, another study showed improved hamstring flexibility after applying crushed ice to the legs, so you might not want to pay the price of cryo for something you can do at home.
Muscle healing: Many studies show positive improvements in muscle after cryotherapy, but some research suggests that cold water immersion (ice bathing) is just as effective, if not more so, for this specific purpose. A Cochrane Review of this topic says there isn’t yet enough evidence to support the claim.
Weight loss: It’s a stretch for companies to market cryotherapy as a weight-loss method. Companies do this based on the theory that exposing your body to freezing temperatures puts your body in survival mode and causes your metabolism to speed up. While that’s true (your body has to work harder to keep you warm), don’t expect cryotherapy to replace your daily workout. Research shows that even after 10 cryo sessions, participants saw no changes in body composition.
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