Cryotherapy is a term that describes any type of treatment using extremely cold temperatures. We’ve all seen images and footage of professional athletes submerging their whole bodies into chambers filled with extremely cold liquid nitrogen. Allegedly, this “remedy” helps with muscle soreness and serves as a pain reliever. But, is this popularized therapy safe, and can cryotherapy for pain relief truly help your body?
Fighting Injuries with Cold
When someone sprains their knee or twists an ankle, you’ll probably hear the phrase “just put some ice on it”. The cold treatment works by reducing blood flow to the injured area, which helps with inflammation and swelling. Low temperature also reduces nerve activity which can help with pain management. Cryotherapy is often done in short sessions, as long exposure can cause both skin and nerve damage.
Why Do Low Temperatures Work?
The injured body part often feels hot due to inflammation. The body increases blood flow to the area, causing swelling. This slows down the healing process. Cold therapy controls the swelling and removes build-up of the fluids around the area. Cells’ metabolic rate slows down, allowing the body to apply more energy and stimulate tissue healing. Furthermore, nerve signals are slowed down which provides the well-known numbing effect, reducing pain.
Although this a relatively new type of treatment and not everything is known for a fact, there have been multiple studies that have proven some alleged benefits. The chamber temperature can range from -100 to -185 degrees Celsius (-150 to -300 degrees Fahrenheit). Treatments usually last up to 3 minutes as to not cause frostbite. Most studies and research have been done on its effectiveness as a pain remedy. A study released in 2000 had multiple participants suffering from autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and lower back pain undergo cryotherapy at temperatures of around -105 degrees Celsius. All participants noted lower pain in the short-term, with somewhat weakened effects over time. Another two studies from 2017 showed that whole-body cryotherapy helped relieve muscle soreness and numerous other inflammatory conditions in athletes. Preliminary findings also speculate that even though this method can have a positive impact on antioxidant capacity and improve the perception of recovery, there isn’t enough evidence to fully support these claims. Also, there are multiple other studies that contradict these findings and consider cryotherapy for pain relief ineffective.
Risks Associated with Cold Treatment
Even though cryotherapy can be helpful with both acute and chronic pain, side effects can occur. The affected painful area might become tingly and numb for longer periods of time, along with increased redness of the skin. People with heart conditions should consult their doctors beforehand. Whole-body cryotherapy lowers the heart rate and increases blood pressure significantly. Vital signs are supposed to be carefully monitored throughout the whole process. At extremely low temperatures, frostbite can occur in one to two minutes. Recommended therapy time should not be exceeded to prevent the chances of nerve damage.
A Note from GR8NESS
Even though it has potential to be a good remedy, there still isn’t enough research available to safely recommend whole-body cryotherapy. Along with the high costs of the treatment, this method isn’t for everyone. An ice pack might do the trick, after all.