Is your arthritis acting up? Do you want to lose weight, relieve insomnia, or boost your athletic performance? In your online search for answers to these and other common ailments, you might have come across a chilly solution known as cryotherapy.
Cryotherapy uses extreme cold as medicine. The term refers to any type of cold therapy, so even icing your knee with a bag of frozen peas counts.
Whole-body cryotherapy (WBC), a popular wellness trend in some circles, involves stripping down to your undies and spending 2 to 4 minutes in a chamber that’s chilled to -200 to -300°F (-128 to -184°C).
Considering the claims that WBC torches major calories, ramps up athletic recovery, and treats every ailment from arthritis to depression, it’s easy to see why it’s gotten so popular. But how much of that is fact?
The premise behind cryotherapy is that submerging your body in extreme cold sets off a body-wide response. Folks who market and sell this treatment boast that it improves blood circulation, relieves pain, and even helps boost mood.
Extreme cold can lower inflammation — kind of like putting an ice pack on a swollen wrist, but on a whole body scale. Icy temps also have a numbing effect, which is why cryotherapy has been studied for chilling out the pain of arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.
WBC has gained a lot of attention from some elite athletes, who have used it before a workout to prevent injuries, and afterward to enhance recovery.
Theoretically, the extreme cold constricts blood vessels, driving excess fluid out to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation, explains Allison Lind Wiedman, doctor of physical therapy and sports specialist.
After the treatment, once the body realizes it’s not in crisis mode, it redistributes blood and oxygen, which may help with healing and cellular regeneration. “It’s a complete shock to the system,” Lind adds.
Does cryotherapy hurt?
Dipping your whole body (minus your head) in freezing cold is a strange sensation, but not a painful one. The cold in the cryo chamber is completely dry, which cuts back on discomfort and still allows oxygen to get to the skin.
Though it’s “intensely” cold, it’s not nearly as painful as sitting in, say, a frigid pool for 10 minutes.
And because the chambers are significantly colder than an ice bath of about 46°F (8°C), you won’t have to spend nearly as much time chilling — literally — to feel results. Just a couple of minutes is enough.
Any time you expose your body to extreme cold, you risk getting frostbite. And given the amount of skin you expose during this treatment, that’s a real worry. Blisters, burns, and a rash are other skin concerns.
Nitrogen, the chemical sometimes used to achieve those super-cooled temperatures, isn’t safe to use in enclosed rooms. The vapors could deprive you of oxygen to the point where you pass out.
If you want to try this treatment, make sure you aren’t pregnant, and that you don’t have a heart condition. And even if you are generally healthy, don’t forget to get the green light from your doctor.
Before you begin the big freeze, the technician should do the following:
- Explain the process.
- Warn you about possible risks.
- Answer any questions.
- Take your blood pressure to make sure your heart can handle an uptick in systolic blood pressure during the session.
You’ll be given socks, shoes, gloves, a hat, and a surgical mask to prevent frostbite. But otherwise you’ll be in bikini- and boardshort-type attire — all of which must be dry to keep frostbite at bay.
Once you’re in the chamber, your head and chin will remain above the cold zone. So if you’re ready to bounce before your 3 minutes are up, you can easily tell your tech to stop the session.
A look at the rave reviews on Yelp and Instagram may leave you believing that the results of whole-body cryotherapy are worth 3 minutes of frigid misery. But — and this is a big but — the scientific results are nowhere near conclusive.
Though a few of the studies that have been done so far have had promising results, most have been small. Some were one-offs.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the research.
1. Aches and pains
In a group of 60 people, 3 weeks of cryotherapy helped with fibromyalgia pain. The therapy also seemed to improve quality of life. People with osteoarthritis reported fewer aches, and less need for pain relievers, after taking the cold plunge.
2. Recovery after exercise
A review of evidence suggests cryotherapy could reduce muscle soreness and promote recovery in athletes. Still, the authors say WBC is overkill, since an ice pack or dip of the legs in a bucket of cold water could do the trick.
3. Shoulder pain
One small study found WBC helpful, along with physical therapy, for adhesive capsulitis — otherwise known as frozen shoulder, a condition caused by injury, diabetes, thyroid issues, and other disorders.
4. Multiple sclerosis
In one study, WBC plus exercise reduced the blues and improved well-being in a group of 60 people with multiple sclerosis.
5. Weight loss
Though it’s definitely not going to replace other lifestyle changes, WBC did help a group of postmenopausal women lose some abdominal fat in one small study.
In research done on a group of people who’d had at least one episode of depression, WBC improved well-being and quality of life when used along with antidepressants.
Long story short: We have much more to learn about WBC. It’s still a big question mark, scientifically speaking.
Cryotherapy isn’t approved or regulated by the FDA, which, after reviewing the medical research, says it hasn’t seen any evidence this treatment works for arthritis, chronic pain, or other ailments.
Plus it for sure has its risks — including frostbite and possible heart problems (particularly if you have a heart condition to begin with). Check with your doctor before trying any whole body cryotherapy, especially if you’re using it in place of other treatments.