6 Cryotherapy Benefits, According to Experts

2022-09-09 12:40:42 By : Ms. Ting Huang

From whole-body cryotherapy to ice baths, what’s all the hype about?

While you may not consider yourself a fan of the cold, it does have its benefits. If you’ve ever used a frozen bag of peas or a more sophisticated ice pack in an effort to relieve pain, you’ve experienced the wonders of cryotherapy in a small sense. Cryotherapy benefits are vast, ranging from muscle and injury recovery to relief from inflammatory conditions, which is why icing skin has been rapidly evolving in the world of health and wellness.

Cryotherapy has received quite a bit of hype lately, and more specifically, whole-body cryotherapy chambers have become “the latest fad in recovery,” according to Brendon Ross, D.O., sports medicine physician at the University of Chicago. Cryotherapy, both whole-body and traditional, is often touted for its wide range of health benefits, but the treatment doesn’t come without risk.

While a frozen bag of vegetables or an ice pack is often doctor-approved, there are some other variations of cryotherapy that are backed by experts and some that are up for debate in the medical community. Ahead, discover what cryotherapy is and what experts have to say about potential cryotherapy benefits and side effects.

Cryotherapy often is associated with large chambers of full-body tanks seen advertised by celebrities, but “cryotherapy consists of a whole host of things,” explains Robert L. Parisien, M.D., orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at Mount Sinai Health System. But, it really just boils down to “cold therapy,” he concludes. Cryotherapy, or cold therapy, can range from applying bagged ice or ice packs to the skin to submerging yourself in an ice bath to more sophisticated “continuous cryotherapy systems,” used in sports medicine, to yes, even whole-body cryotherapy chambers.

Cryotherapy works in a few different ways: It “essentially slows down any sort of inflammatory process that is secondary to any sort of musculoskeletal injuries, sprains, and strains,” explains Dr. Ross. And it is “also slowing the inflammatory process, hoping to then control the subsequent swelling and pain resulting from musculoskeletal injury.”

There are a number of potential benefits related to cryotherapy, as there are many ways that cryotherapy can be performed. Below, find a few expert-backed benefits of harnessing the cold.

“Cryotherapy is most useful when trying to look for short-term recovery from sprains, strains, and potentially really significant workouts,” explains Dr. Ross. Since cryotherapy helps to decrease inflammation by constricting the blood vessels and thus blood flow to the affected area, swelling as well as pain then decreases, according to Dr. Parisien. Icing with an ice pack is standard for muscle and injury recovery.

Dr. Parisien notes that he uses cryotherapy “almost exclusively” in all of his postoperative patients to decrease pain, inflammation, and swelling. “I recommend the old [R.I.C.E.] adage that still works today,” Dr. Parisien explains. “Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation, which can be beneficial after an acute injury and also after surgery.” The continuous cryotherapy systems noted by Dr. Parisien are often used in post-surgery recovery as well as regular use of ice packs.

Cryotherapy isn’t used to treat many medical conditions, but Dr. Ross makes exceptions for inflammatory issues such as rheumatologic conditions which often cause swelling and joint pain. In these cases, it can be helpful to utilize cryotherapy to reduce symptoms “because the level of inflammation in those individuals is very high,” Dr. Ross explains. For relief from these inflammatory conditions, cryotherapy chambers are often touted as a treatment, but standard icing is an alternative, expert-backed method.

Cryotherapy, or cryoablation, is utilized in dermatology for the treatment and removal of benign, precancerous, and sometimes early malignant lesions, according to Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale. When the “cryogen, which is usually liquid nitrogen,” is used on these lesions with a q-tip application “the temperature is so cold that it actually creates damage to the tissues so that those lesions go away,” explains Dr. Gohara.

As cryotherapy cools the blood passing through the head and neck region, it may help reduce the symptoms associated with migraines. One study reveals that applying cold therapy to the major blood vessels in the neck improved pain significantly, with 77% of participants confirming the cold packs helped ease symptoms.

While only a theory, one study finds that whole-body cryotherapy may help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s due to the anti-inflammatory benefits of the treatment. The same study notes that inflammatory responses are likely contributing to Alzheimer’s.

So, where does whole-body cryotherapy fall into the world of cold therapy? First, it’s important to note that the therapy is not FDA-approved. Whole-body cryotherapy “also hasn’t been well studied, and it’s not utilized as a standard of care,” explains Dr. Parisien. The therapy “involves going into a chamber (usually participants are wearing socks and gloves) and becoming supercooled by usually a liquid nitrogen technique,” explains Jennifer Pfleghaar, D.O., A.B.O.I.M., owner of Healthology by Dr. Jen. “Temperatures can range from minus 200 to minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit.”

“The intent of these cryotherapy chambers is to provide an environment where all of the tissues of the body are being cooled down, with the goal to help decrease inflammation,” notes Dr. Parisien. Some intended benefits of whole-body cryotherapy are quicker recovery from exercise programs and muscle recovery, according to Dr. Parisien, as well as improved circulation, reduction of joint pain, and a bolstered metabolism, according to Dr. Pfleghaar.

Cryotherapy chambers really satisfy our world’s desire for everything to be faster, says Dr. Ross. He continues to note the lack of FDA oversight and substantiated studies—so proceed with caution. “With that being said, we fall into this realm of the placebo effect,” Dr. Ross notes. “And the placebo effect, in my opinion, is still a very important part of medicine.” (The placebo effect is when the brain convinces the body that a “fake treatment is the real thing,” which then contributes to actual healing, according to Harvard Health Publishing.) Cryotherapy may give a feeling of doing something positive towards recovery, according to Dr. Ross, which can be psychologically powerful for some patients.

When considering whole-body cryotherapy, the main risks of the treatment include frostbite and burns, which can be common if the machine is not working correctly or the proper precautions (like covering the extremities) are not taken, explains Dr. Pfleghaar. Traditional cryotherapy is a rather safe methodology with few possible side effects.

Whole-body cryotherapy aside, Dr. Ross recommends being mindful during these cold and ice treatments and limiting exposure to 15 to 20 minutes up to three times per day, which is a “sufficient period to get the desired effect and also mitigating risks of prolonged exposure,” he explains. It’s also important to make sure the part of the body that is exposed to the treatment “has appropriate sensation,” Dr. Ross cautions, to avoid any sort of skin or frostbite injury. It’s also key for those with blood circulation or other vascular issues to exercise caution with cryo treatments, as these treatments “constrict arterial flow,” Dr. Ross explains.

In terms of immersive ice baths, which are safe and effective, it is crucial to follow the correct precautions to avoid adverse reactions. Ice baths must only be used for one specific extremity rather than a full body immersion, and only for a few minutes at a time as you otherwise “run the risk of pulmonary issues, breathing issues, and cardiac issues,” in addition to frostbite, Dr. Parisien explains. It is also recommended to have someone with you at all times to safely monitor you.

Shannen Zitz is a Freelance Editorial Assistant at Prevention who recently graduated from the State University of New York at Cortland with an English degree. She loves all things fashion, beauty, and wellness. If she’s not reading or writing, you can probably find her frequenting the skincare and makeup forums on Reddit. 

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