Cryotherapy: Is Extreme Cold Good for You?

Perhaps the word "cryotherapy" makes you think of sci-fi films where rich men and crazy scientists get frozen and then resuscitated a hundred years later, or perhaps you've already heard about cryosaunas - the latest craze among Hollywood celebrities; in any case, chances are that you have actually tried cryotherapy yourself!

Whenever you put an ice pack or a bag of frozen veggies to a sprained ankle, or get a mole removed using liquid nitrogen, you are experiencing cryotherapy. In fact, treating injuries and muscle pain with ice and snow has been a known method since the 18th century. Ice treatment for damaged muscles or tendons is based on a simple principle: as you press an ice pack to an injured spot, your blood vessels contract, which reduces internal bleeding, pain, and inflammation. When the source of cold is removed, your tissues get warm again, blood circulation is intensified, and harmful metabolism products are flushed out faster.

However, recently the idea has been taken to a new level with the so-called WBC (Whole Body Cryotherapy). As you step into a “cryosauna”, wearing gloves, socks, and facial protection to avoid frostbite, liquid nitrogen is injected into the chamber, bringing the temperature below -150 degrees Celsius. The treatment usually lasts three minutes, and is supposed to increase endurance, fasten recovery, reduce cellulite, make you younger, help lose weight. etc. Prices vary from 40 to 100 USD per treatment, but is it worth it?

Scientists remain unconvinced

Cryosauna enthusiasts report feeling energized and happy after WBC treatments, but it’s not surprising: the combined effect of adrenaline and endorphines is enough to produce the impression. Plus, simply the excitement of being in a chamber freezed to -200 degrees can result in a strong placebo effect. So far, no medical study has produced proof of WBC’s actual effectiveness (more details here). Research has shown that, while people experience subjective reduction of muscle pain, WBC doesn’t fasten the recovery after injuries. Another study  has shown that, administered 24 hours after muscle injury, WBC does not significantly reduce muscle pain.

Cryotherapy at home

Long before WBC chambers were developed, athletes have used ice baths after training and competitions. The method is simple: dump several bucketfuls of ice into a bathtub, add cold water, put on socks, gloves and a hat, and get in for about 20 minutes. The water should reach up to your waist when you sit in the bath. According to many practitioners, ice baths provide all the same benefits of WBC… almost for free! It is supposed to reduce soreness and swelling, heal and recover your tissues. However, also in this case, research results are inconclusive. On the one hand, some studies indicate it’s more efficient that WBC ; on the other, it may not speed up recovery at all.

If you do decide to try an ice bath, remember that risks of hypothermia (and even death) are real; thus, make sure you study the subject further and follow all safety precautions. If, on the other hand, you choose to go for a WBC, keep in mind that it’s not currently regulated by any medical authorities and so far unsupported by research.

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