Benefits of Cryotherapy
The prevention and treatment of muscle pain and soreness is the most common reason people turn to cryotherapy. We are all aware that cold therapy can provide pain relief after surgery or an injury. Cryotherapy is a more intense version of this type of treatment that can be used to treat acute injuries, trauma, or even muscle strain from exercise. Because exercise is known to produce inflammation and pain, cryotherapy is also sometimes used as a preventative strategy. One of the largest reviews of the literature currently available on cryotherapy benefits found that cryotherapy helps reduce pain in 80 percent of studies, and athletes experienced improved recovery and overall performance in 71 percent of studies. This review also indicated that whole-body cryotherapy has few, if any, side effects, for those using it for these purposes.
Decreased Inflammation & Tissue Damage
As a part of the same review of the available literature, it was noted that cryotherapy also reduces systemic inflammation, and promotes healthy muscle tissue overall. With repeated treatments, patients saw less pain, improved muscle function, and lower levels of inflammation when compared to those who underwent single treatments. When inflammation is reduced, you are able to return more quickly to high-intensity physical activity, thus reducing recovery time. When you have inflammation for a prolonged period, you are more likely to have reduced blood flow, more pain, and less mobility.
A 2010 study stated that cryotherapy conducted on athletes modifies several essential physiological and biochemical parameters related to inflammatory response. These included changes in the status of antioxidants, fewer muscular enzymes related to muscle damage, and fewer pro-inflammatory cytokines. There are a number of anti-inflammatory proteins that are shown to increase after cryogenic chamber treatment, including cytokines IL-6, IL-10, and IL-1ra, and the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-1α also decreases with cryotherapy treatment. Other controlled studies have shown a reduction in other pro-inflammatory proteins, such as IL-1β. When you complete multiple sessions, these results are shown to last longer.
Improvement for Rheumatic Diseases
Conditions that cause chronic pain in muscles and joints are known as rheumatic diseases. The most well-known of these is probably rheumatoid arthritis. When subjected to cryotherapy, researchers have discovered that patients with rheumatoid arthritis experience a significant reduction in pain, improvement in their mobility, and reduced functional impairment. Results have been shown to last as long as three months after cryotherapy ends. When compared to cold pack application and localized cold air treatment, whole-body cryotherapy improved patient symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis significantly more effective than other types of cold treatment. When compared to traditional rehabilitation, the effects of whole-body cryotherapy have been shown to improve fatigue, inflammation, and pain relief to comparable degrees.
Therefore, when a cryotherapy is an option, it can improve patient recovery as well as or better than other methods traditionally used for rehabilitation and the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Cryotherapy can reduce the need for pain medications, improve the mental state of patients in pain, and enhance the overall well-being of patients using this therapeutic technique. When studied in patients with other types of rheumatic disorders, cryotherapy is equally successful in reducing pain and other negative symptoms. These benefits include enhanced joint mobility and reduction in pain that lasts up to two months after the final cryotherapy treatment.
Cryotherapy even holds promise for treating rare and debilitating disorders, such as Ankylosing Spondylitis, or AS. This disease is arthritis of the spine, and it causes severe, chronic pain that can often be hard to live with. When patients with AS were given treatment in a cryogenic chamber, they showed significantly improved mobility and decreased disease activity overall.
As we learn more about whole-body cryotherapy, and its impact on rheumatic diseases and other disorders, cryogenic chambers may be used more frequently as a supplement to other prescribed treatments such as anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids.
Prevention of Metabolic Diseases
Because of its potential to reduce oxidative stress within the body, plus its ability to lower inflammation, cryotherapy is currently being investigated as a possible treatment for metabolic diseases like Type 2 diabetes. Because it has a positive influence on inflammation, cryotherapy can essentially mimic the effects of exercise, which is good for those with diabetes. Cryotherapy can even help defend against the negative effects of stress, which is an underlying cause of many of today’s diseases. By supporting the nervous system and promoting the release of norepinephrine, whole-body cryotherapy works in much the same way as exercise and has a positive influence on the cellular functions associated with inflammation.
A Decrease in Tinnitus Symptoms
Tinnitus, which is also known as ‘ringing in the ears,’ is usually a symptom of some other medical condition, like an ear injury or loss of hearing. When exposed to whole-body cryotherapy, patients with tinnitus have shown a decrease in the intensity of the ringing. In addition, cryotherapy can limit, in some cases, the degree to which hearing is lost or overall hearing damage.
Improvement of Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms
Induced by oxidative stress, multiple sclerosis, or MS, is known for its degeneration of neural networks and nerves by the immune system. MS has many symptoms, the most common of which include fatigue, weakness in the muscles, painful muscle spasms, numbness, dizziness, and changes in mood. Because of its connection to oxidative stress, cryotherapy has been studied for its impact on MS symptoms. Not only does whole-body cryotherapy reduce levels of oxidative stress in patients with MS, but it has also been shown to improve fatigue levels as well as functional status. In patients who had more fatigue, cryotherapy produced better results. Additional research shows MS patients were able to improve their duration of activity as well as their overall ability to exercise after treatments in the cryogenic chamber. The results lasted for several months, especially for those with secondary-progressive MS, which gets progressively more debilitating and has little chance of recovery. When considering treatments for diseases like MS, cryogenic therapies could offer significant improvement in the quality of life for patients.
Improvements in Anxiety and Depression
In addition to treating physical injuries and disorders, cryotherapy is being studied as a way to heal psychological strain and improve mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. Patients were given regular whole-body cryotherapy treatments for several weeks. After each session and after all cryotherapy was complete, patients were monitored using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale. In nearly all areas, whole-body cryotherapy led to improvements for patients.
Chronic pain can often be the cause of or a contributing factor to depressive symptoms. When studied in patients with spinal pain or other joint issues, cryotherapy has been shown to increase overall well-being and improve patients’ quality of life. And the more depressed the mental state before therapy, the more powerful the results after it.
Treatment for Fibromyalgia by Cryotherapy
If you have fibromyalgia, you are familiar with the increased pain in your bones and muscles, the fatigue, and the difficulty sleeping that are characteristic of this disease. Patients with fibromyalgia have seen improvements in their symptoms using whole-body cryotherapy. Results have even been shown to last for up to one month after the final cryogenic treatment (36).
Helps With Eczema
Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, can sometimes be improved using whole-body cryotherapy. Some patients with eczema have reported improvement, and this is truer for women than for men.
Treatment for Restless Legs Syndrome
When patients with RLS were treated with whole-body and localized cryotherapy, and while both therapies improved symptoms, whole-body cryotherapy treatments showed more improvement in symptom reduction and overall quality of life.
Improved Heart Health
When examining the impact of whole-body cryotherapy on cardiac activity, cold therapy was seen to have a positive influence on both resting heart rate and cardiac output. When measuring the amount of blood pumped per beat, otherwise known as stroke volume, and the activity of baroreceptors, which control blood pressure, cryotherapy has both an immediate and a long-term positive effect (39).
Reduction in Headaches
For example, those with severe migraines often experience relief when cold or ice packs are applied to the neck. This reduces the expansion of blood vessels and restricts blood flow, which helps alleviate pain. This is an example of localized cryotherapy, and researchers are examining ways to use whole-body treatments for headaches and other types of pain disorders.
Possible Treatment for Dementia
Because of its anti-inflammatory effects and ability to increase antioxidants and lower oxidative stress, it is hoped that, someday, whole-body cryotherapy may be used in the treatment of dementia disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease. While this is not a current application of this technology, as we learn more about the effects of cryotherapy, we could be seeing this innovation sometime in the future.
Side Effects of Cryotherapy
- Cardiac Complications
- The natural side effect of cryotherapy is to increase blood pressure and reduce heart rate.
- If you use cryotherapy consistently or repeatedly, this can cause a short-term rise in your blood pressure, even when not in the cryogenic chamber.
- If you have a heart condition, have high blood pressure, or take medications for your heart, talk with your doctor about the potential short- and long-term effects of cryotherapy on your heart.
- We currently have limited information on the effects of extreme cold, like that used in cryotherapy, on the heart.
Reduces migraine symptoms
Cryotherapy can help treat migraines by cooling and numbing nerves in the neck area. One study found that applying a neck wrap containing two frozen ice packs to the carotid arteries in the neck significantly reduced migraine pain in those tested. It’s thought that this works by cooling the blood passing through intracranial vessels. The carotid arteries are close to the skin’s surface and accessible.
Numbs nerve irritation
Many athletes have been using cryotherapy to treat injuries for years, and one of the reasons why is that it can numb pain. The cold can actually numb an irritated nerve. Doctors will treat the affected area with a small probe inserted into the nearby tissue. This can help treat pinched nerves or neuromas, chronic pain, or even acute injuries.
Helps treat mood disorders
The ultra-cold temperatures in whole-body cryotherapy can cause physiological hormonal responses. This includes the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and endorphins. This can have a positive effect on those experiencing mood disorders like anxiety and depression. One study found that whole-body cryotherapy was actually effective in short-term treatment for both.
Reduces arthritic pain
Localized cryotherapy treatment isn’t the only thing that’s effective at treating serious conditions; one study found that whole-body cryotherapy significantly reduced pain in people with arthritis. They found that the treatment was well-tolerated. It also allowed for more aggressive physiotherapy and occupational therapy as a result. This ultimately made rehabilitation programs more effective.
May help treat low-risk tumors
Targeted, localized cryotherapy can be used as a cancer treatment. In this context, it’s called “cryosurgery.” It works by freezing cancer cells and surrounding them with ice crystals. It’s currently being used to treat some low-risk tumors for certain types of cancer, including prostate cancer.
May help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
While more research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of this strategy, it’s theorized that whole-body cryotherapy could help prevent Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. It’s thought that this may be an effective treatment because the anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects of cryotherapy could help combat the inflammatory and oxidative stress responses that occur with Alzheimer’s.
Treats atopic dermatitis and other skin conditions
Atopic dermatitis is a chronic inflammatory skin disease with signature symptoms of dry and itchy skin. Because cryotherapy can improve antioxidant levels in the blood and can simultaneously reduce inflammation, it makes sense that both localized and whole-body cryotherapy can help treat atopic dermatitis. Another study (in mice) examined its effect for acne, targeting the sebaceous glands.