Brian B. Parr, Ph.D.
If you pay attention to health trends you have likely heard about whole body cryotherapy. For years athletes have touted the benefits of cryotherapy for reducing muscle soreness and improving performance. Now cryotherapy is going mainstream, with enthusiasts claiming it can help you lose weight, look younger, and experience better health. While the buzz about cryotherapy is fairly recent, using cold as a treatment has been around for decades. And even if you haven’t been to one of the new cryotherapy centers, you have likely used this treatment yourself. Let’s explore what cryotherapy is, how it is used by both athletes and non-athletes, and some smart recommendations, if you are considering trying it.
The term cryotherapy simply means using cold as a modality to treat an injury or disease, promote healing, and ease pain. If you have ever put ice (or a bag of frozen peas) on an injury you have used cryotherapy. The use of ice, either applied to an injured area or as a whole body ice bath, has been a part of sports medicine for years. The application of cold is thought to reduce swelling and inflammation, reduce pain, and speed the healing process.
Cold exposure using chilled air or clothing before exercise, called precooling, and during exercise, called percooling, can help athletes perform better in hot environments. Those “cooling towels” that you wet and hang around your neck to cool you while you exercise or work are a good example of percooling – cryotherapy in action! In cases of hyperthermia, ice baths can be used to quickly lower body temperature to avoid heat injury.
Now cryotherapy is no longer confined to just the training room. Whole body cryotherapy centers cite a host of health and fitness benefits from weight loss to anti-aging effects on the skin. These facilities typically offer sessions of exposure to extremely cold (-200 to -400°F) air for a few minutes at a time causing the skin temperature to drop rapidly. This triggers a physiological response that includes reducing blood flow to the skin, diminishing inflammation, and causing hormonal changes, which proponents of the technology claim to be beneficial for health, fitness, and weight loss.
While ice baths have been used as a recovery tool for years, whole body cryotherapy chambers are being more widely used, especially among prominent professional athletes. This celebrity factor, and the media coverage surrounding it, is one reason why cryotherapy has become so popular. And the technology has advanced to the point where the equipment is safe and effective for cooling the body. If there isn’t a cryotherapy center in your area now, there may be one soon.
Like many health trends, the popularity of whole body cryotherapy is based on people, especially famous people, using it and talking about it. Much of the buzz about it may be based more on how people feel after a session, than on measurable health improvements. While currently, there is no scientific research that supports the use of whole body cryotherapy for health purposes, there is also no evidence it is harmful if used properly. Regardless of its perceived benefits, whole body cryotherapy should not replace medical management for injuries or chronic conditions like arthritis or obesity.
Despite the potential benefits of whole body cryotherapy some experts still question the efficacy of this treatment. This may seem strange, because for decades icing an injury to speed recovery has practically been sports medicine dogma and the basis for the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) recommendations for treating minor muscle and joint injuries. Despite its common use, you may be surprised to learn that there is actually little research-based evidence to support using cryotherapy as a treatment.
Current practice is moving away from using ice and focusing more on compression (voodoo flossing is an example) and maintaining mobility for injury treatment. For recovery from intense exercise, an ice bath is thought to temporarily disrupt the natural physiological response, including inflammation and increased blood flow to the muscle, that is necessary for building strength and endurance. It may be that whole body ice or cold air exposure may help to reduce pain initially, but may not necessarily be a long-term solution for improving recovery and performance. Many physicians, physical therapists, and athletic trainers still rely on ice as a part of post-injury treatment. The take away is that you should follow the advice of your doctor or therapist.
As far as safety goes, whole body cryotherapy has been associated with only one death (likely due to exposure to the nitrogen gas used to cool the air, not the cold temperature itself). It has not been found to be harmful if used correctly. A more realistic concern is that people might use this therapy in lieu of (as opposed to in addition to) treatments that are known to be effective, allowing minor medical conditions to get worse over time.
Because there is limited research at this time, it is impossible to verify the claims made about the benefits of whole body cryotherapy. Currently, the FDA has not cleared or approved any cryotherapy devices. The lack of scientific evidence supporting the use of whole body cryotherapy to treat health concerns like arthritis or obesity suggests that it should not be used exclusively or as a primary treatment therapy for these conditions. Yet, many people who use whole body cryotherapy claim to experience benefits including improved health and wellbeing with no negative effects.
If you are considering trying cryotherapy, see your doctor first and keep in mind that it should not replace other healthy habits. Ideally, it should be part of a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, good nutrition, and medical management of serious health conditions. These are practices that are proven to help you get fit, lose weight, and feel better, whether you decide to “chill” or not.
Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., is an ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken.