Michael Phelps, Floyd Mayweather, LeBron James and many other professional athletes have turned to the same technique to soothe sore muscles and speed up workout recovery times. Kind of like a new-age ice bath, cryotherapy uses subzero temperatures to promote pain relief and muscle healing -- but does the science support it? Read on to find out.
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.
This article covers whole-body cryotherapy as a tool for promoting overall health and fitness and discusses its uses, benefits and what you can expect during a session.
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.
Overall, it's still hard to tell whether whole-body cryotherapy lives up to the claims. It's just too new, and there isn't enough evidence one way or another. Despite promising studies, know that the FDA hasn't cleared whole-body cryotherapy for the treatment of any specific medical conditions, and warns consumers that there's no telling what the long-term effects might be. If you're interested in trying cryotherapy, talk to your doctor first.
What to expect in the chamber
Coldness, and lots of it.
Depending on where you go, you'll sit or stand in an enclosed chamber with only your head and neck poking out of the top. The temperature in the chamber drops to subzero temperatures, usually between -200 and -130 degrees Fahrenheit. Because it's so cold, you'll only stay in the chamber for two to four minutes. Temperatures that cold can be fatal if you're exposed for more than just a few minutes.
You'll enter the chamber nearly naked -- most people wear their underwear or a bathing suit. Some facilities offer their clients gloves, socks or slippers, a face mask and/or earmuffs to protect sensitive areas of the body from frostbite. You should also take out any piercings or cover them with bandaids.
Some cryo chambers have built-in screens that show a heat map of your body, so you can see yourself cooling down (or freezing, whatever you want to call it) in real time.
Are there any risks?
Submitting your body to any environmental condition that doesn't support its optimal function poses health risks for certain. Temporary minor side effects from cryotherapy include tingling, burning, numbness, redness and skin irritation. More serious side effects include frostbite, a frozen limb or extremity and rashes, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Experts aren't sure about long-term side effects yet, but hypothesize that the risks could include permanent nerve damage, especially if you stay in the chamber for more than five minutes at a time. There's also been one known cryotherapy-related death, though the woman died of the oxygen-poor environment created by liquid nitrogen and extreme cold, not the coldness itself.
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How much does cryotherapy cost?
Shocking your body with subzero temps costs a pretty penny, as it turns out. A three-minute session can cost $60 to upwards of $100, depending on your locale. Some places offer monthly memberships that include unlimited cryotherapy sessions but expect those to cost $100 or more per month.
One trend I've noticed is that of recovery lounges or "optimization centers", which act as one-stop-shops for multiple health and recovery needs. For instance, Next Health in Los Angeles offers cryotherapy, vitamin IV therapy, infrared light therapy, vitamin shots and more for varying monthly membership fees.
Where can I find a cryo chamber?
You can probably find a cryo chamber within 30 minutes of your home, and much closer if you live near or in a large city. Cryotherapy has become a trendy way to recover from workouts and promote overall health, so more and more keep popping up nationwide. Your best bet: Google "cryotherapy near me."
So, should you try it?
I can't help but think that the risks outweigh the benefits. I'm glad I researched this, as I was planning on eventually trying out a cryo chamber for myself -- now, I'm not too sure that I want to.
I can't speak for elite athletes, but as a long-distance runner and someone who does four to five CrossFit workouts each week, I think most people can recover just fine with an ice bath or cold compress (which research supports and is much cheaper than cryotherapy). Or, maybe try something less risky, like massage, percussive therapy or compression therapy.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.