Cryotherapy: Healthy or Hype?

Cryotherapy- healthy or hype

If you live in a big city or follow me on Instagram, you may have heard of Cryotherapy.

If you haven’t, it is essentially the process of using really low temperatures for medical therapy. This could mean something as simple as sitting in a cold tub or ice bath or using ice on a wound. Recently a new kind of cold therapy has emerged and it involves getting into a body-sized chamber up to your neck and having liquid nitrogen sprayed into the air to bring skin temperature down to below -200ºF.

Sounds fun, right?

I didn’t think so either at first, but the benefits are intriguing and the Cryo-chamber  (also called a Cryosauna) was much more bearable than an ice bath, in my opinion.

What is Cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy is essentially the process of using cold temperatures for their health benefits. This form of therapy has been used in different ways since the 1700s to decrease pain and muscle spasms, improve recovery, slow cell aging and improve health.

Athletes have been soaking in cold tubs and ice baths for decades, but recent innovation now allows for whole body cryotherapy (WBC) in a specialized chamber using liquid nitrogen and is the form most often referred to in modern references to Cryotherapy.

This type of cold therapy was invented in the 1970s in Japan, and has only come to the US and other countries in the last decade. It has gained widespread popularity with athletes and those with certain chronic illnesses (as well as housewives who don’t like ice baths *ahem*).

As you might imagine, this therapy has its share of claims to its benefits, as well as its fair share of skeptics and risks. So what is the real story? I decided to get down to -240ºF  and investigate.

Benefits of Cryotherapy

Articles about WBC claim that it can help with everything from minor inflammation to autoimmune disease and everything in between. It is important to note that Cryotherapy itself has been used in some form by the medical community for hundreds of years and is well documented.

Doctors often recommend icing an injured area to reduce inflammation. Cryoablation refers to a process of using extreme cold in a surgical setting to destroy diseased tissue, including cancer (this is also sometimes used for wart and mole removal). Neurosurgeon Dr. Jack Kruse recommends cold thermogenesis (ice baths) for regulating hormones and improving leptin levels (and thus leading to weight loss).

Any of these are essentially a form of “cryotherapy” but recent references more often refer to WBC or “cryosaunas,” which are fascinating but less well-researched. Tony Robbins claims to use a cryogenic tank daily as part of his daily routine and other celebrities have jumped on the bandwagon as well, but let’s look at the research.

Some of the benefits often attributed to cold therapy are:

Faster Recovery from Exercise

This claim seems to be well supported, both anecdotally and in studies. Athletes have known for hundreds of years that ice seems to help speed recovery and WBC is a fast way to get the benefits of cold to the entire body.

Some studies show that WBC is effective against delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in athletes, however a meta-analysis of studies didn’t find the same results and questioned the validity of earlier studies. (1, 2, 3)

Many athletes and celebrities from Kobe Bryant, to Jessica Alba and even basketball players from the Dallas Mavericks claim to have noticed benefits from cryotherapy, and the rapidly growing popularity of these “Cold Saunas” indicates that many others might notice the same results, though science doesn’t seem to understand how or why WBC reduces soreness yet.

Potential Immune System Boost

Another benefit often attributed to cold therapy is an immune system boost and the research here is divided. The theory is that the rapid exposure to extreme cold triggers the hypothalamus to switch on anti-inflammatory processes within the body. Dr. Kruse recommends cold therapy for improving leptin levels, which has a proven connection to improving immune function. (4)

It isn’t clear whether or not 3 minutes at temperatures below -200ºF are enough to trigger the same leptin benefits as ice baths and the more well-studied methods used by Dr. Kruse, though further research may shed more light (or cold!) on this topic.

Another theory is that three minutes of such intense cold is enough stimulation to make the body think it is in a survival situation and to ramp up the normal immune process in the body. This is also less researched and the link is unclear, though I found dozens of cases of people who swear by it for an immune boost.

Personally, I haven’t tried it enough to know one way or the other if it helped me, but I did notice this next benefit…

Increased Energy and Metabolism

This is the benefit I noticed immediately and for several days after my cryo session. After just three minutes of intense cold, I felt like I could run a marathon. I had a ton of energy, was more mentally alert and I felt great! This is likely from the release of catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline) as well as other neuro-peptides in reaction to the cold. These neuro-chemicals are associated with a feeling of euphoria and are the reason you might find yourself laughing out loud when you jump into cold water or run out in the snow without adequate clothing.

Of course, my experience is purely anecdotal and doesn’t include any scientific proof, but it is something I would do again just for the mental and energy boost.

Another claim often associated with WBC is the metabolic effect of “burning 800 calories in 3 minutes.” I couldn’t find any studies to back up this claim, though I also couldn’t find any evidence that cryotherapy was harmful. There is research that indicates that cold therapy (specifically immersion in ice water) can ramp up the metabolic rate by over 300%, though this same research has not been done specifically on cryo-saunas and the air version of this method. (5)

Help for Inflammation

This is another benefit often associated with cold therapy but not entirely well-studied. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t effective. We’ve probably all used cold therapy (ice) for inflammation (injury or bruise) at some point in our lives without looking for scientific research before doing so.

Doctors have used cryotherapy in clinical settings to help with inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and chronic pain conditions. Cold seems to have both short and long term benefits against chronic pain and can also make other therapies more effective and better tolerated by the patients. (6)

Risks of WBC or Cryotherapy

As you might imagine, stepping into a sub-zero chamber does come with a few risks, though surprisingly not as many as you might expect. The only cases of injury or harm I found were when someone wore damp clothing inside the chamber and contracted frostbite and the death of one cryo-sauna employee from using the tank alone after work hours without a trained technician running it for him.

Since WBC is done for a very short amount of time in a controlled environment, the potential for risk may actually be lower than when doing immersion therapy in cold water. Of course, pregnant women shouldn’t try this, and anyone with a health condition should check with a doctor before attempting this or any other therapy.

WBC is currently unregulated and not extensively studied so we may continue to learn more about the benefits and risks as more research is done.

Cryotherapy: Bottom Line

Research is still emerging about this type of cold therapy. While the benefits of cold therapy and cold thermogenesis are well-supported, we don’t seem to know yet how WBC compares or if it has the same long-term benefits, though the anecdotal evidence and initial studies are promising. Like most things in life, WBC carries risks if done incorrectly, but may have many benefits if done correctly.

For me, it was worth trying for the boost of energy and mental clarity that lasted several days after my session and it is something I will definitely try again.

What are your thoughts? Have you tried it? Would you go 200 degrees below zero?

Sources:

  1. Costello, J. T.; Algar, L. A.; Donnelly, A. E. (2012-04-01). “Effects of whole-body cryotherapy (-110 °C) on proprioception and indices of muscle damage”.Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 22(2): 190–198.
  2. Hausswirth, Christophe; Louis, Julien; Bieuzen, François; Pournot, Hervé; Fournier, Jean; Filliard, Jean-Robert; Brisswalter, Jeanick (2011-01-01). “Effects of whole-body cryotherapy vs. far-infrared vs. passive modalities on recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage in highly-trained runners”. PLOS ONE 6 (12): e27749.
  3. Kane J. Hayter, Kenji Doma, Moritz Schumann, Glen B. Deakin, The comparison of cold-water immersion and cold air therapy on maximal cycling performance and recovery markers following strength exercises, PeerJ,2016, 4, e1841
  4. Patricia Fernández-Riejos, Souad Najib, Jose Santos-Alvarez, et al., “Role of Leptin in the Activation of Immune Cells,” Mediators of Inflammation, vol. 2010, Article ID 568343, 8 pages, 2010. doi:10.1155/2010/568343
  5. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s004210050065
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10832164

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Reader Comments

  1. This sounds intriguing! I’m thinking it might help not only my brain fog and fatigue from Lyme’s but it also might help with my severe menopause symptoms. How did you find a cryo-sauna to try and how much did it cost?

    • We don’t have one in my town, so I tried it out while traveling with my husband last year. I just found out one opened about an hour away from me though, so I’ll be testing it out even more soon, and will update the post accordingly. The price will vary based on location, but I’ve seen it anywhere from $30 – $100 per session.

      • I would give it a try at $30 but $100 is a bit much for so short a time. I’ll look around here and see if it’s available. Thanks for the info!

  2. I have been taking my son to WBC for muscle tightness from sports. He likes it and the funny thing is he commented on how well he sleeps the evening after a session. There are a lot of athletes we see coming in but also a pretty good variety of men and women of all ages for different reasons other than muscle recovery from sports. I have yet to try it but am thinking about it. Our location just added a cryotherapy facial to their services with a licensed esthetician which sounds interesting too.

  3. I did the Chicago Polar Plunge this year. Much better idea. exciting, everybody else it doing it so you don’t feel too weird, meet nice people and it is raising money for the Special Olympics.

  4. I love cryo!! I haven’t done the full body treatment – only localized. I’ve done it on my neck (which easily stores tension from a car accident 4 years ago) and then on my jaw (I got braces this year). Doing cryo on my jaw combined with essential oils has done wonders for the pain after an orthodontic adjustment.

  5. Cryotherapy was the primary treatment for premature infants with Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), here in the US in 1987. 10 hospitals were conducting the study across the US and my son was number 2 on the study. Using a lazer, they freeze the rogue blood cells that causes the retina to detach. This was used only on one eye for the study. I don’t know what the percentage is of the total case study. It didn’t save his eyesight, although he does have light perception.

  6. I’ve been taking cold (as cold as my shower goes cold) showers for 100+ days. I started it during a 90-day ascetic spiritual program called “Exodus” that 3 friends and I did. The cold showers were a form of mortification.

    Anyhow, the 90 days have now ended but I’ve continued to take cold showers since I now LOVE them! They make me feel so alert and strong.

    I also do CrossFit MetCons 4 to 5 days per week and I’m 110% convinced that cold showers and magnesium spray are the best thing for muscle soreness. Add in some DoTerra Deep Blue for an extra boost!

    I’ve not tried these chambers but am super intrigued and plan to give it a go!

    BTW, I’m at Paleo f(x) right now and Ben Greenfield did an awesome talk where we mentioned going from infrared heat to cold… he does this every morning.

  7. I will be trying this. Looking for energy, clarity and weight loss.

  8. I have used cryo in the past but am not currently doing so. Mainly because it was a hour round trip with a three minute pit stop! I also took my mother who has several inflammatory autoimmune issues. We both felt invigorated after the sessions. She felt less inflamed. I felt like I recovered from exercise faster. So, many of the same benefits listed in your article. At the location I attended, we were able to pay one flat rate per person and then go as many times that month as we wanted which was a very nice benefit.

  9. I think I would do well in this
    I am the one that plunges in the beach all year around
    Ok ok ok: we are talking Miami Beach, can’t compare with the walrus guys.

  10. Hey Wellness Mama,

    Faithful reader here! 🙂 Do you know of a list of cryotherapy sites … live in upstate NY.

    Many blessings to you & yours!

    • I’m not sure if there is a website that lists them all out. I usually just Google “cryotherapy name of city” to find it…

  11. When I lived in Thailand, I ran into Elizabeth, a young Englishwoman who, in her search for a cure from her severe mystery chronic fatigue (she slept well over 20 hrs/day) found an article in a car racing magazine (she’d been a race car driver) about a racer who contracted Epstein-Barr Virus. The doctors said it was incurable but he went in search of an answer, which he found. A physician told him to immerse himself in ice baths (don’t recall how many minutes) twice/day, for 30 days. The fellow did so and after about 10 days could tell that he’d been cured. He went ahead and finished out the 30 days and returned to racing.

    The young woman chose to try the ice baths and ta-da! She subsequently also returned to racing. I then noticed ice therapy being used in a Bangkok hospital. The doctor told me they used ice mitts on patients to raise their immune systems. And I was told of alternative clinics in northern Thailand using some sort of cold therapy.

    I immediately passed this info on to a friend’s husband with Epstein-Barr, and he also opted to proceed with ice baths. I could not imagine doing as he did, in North Dakota, in the dead of winter. At any rate, he said it did the trick.

    Thank you for posting your experience. I trust many will find it helpful.

  12. Would this be similar to the benefits of taking cold showers?

    • Somewhat, but the benefits of cryotherapy are much more concentrated, as the temperature is much colder and you’re in the tank for only a short period of time…

  13. Probably not good for everyone…..see Ayurvedic bodytypes.

  14. Do you think this okay to do while breastfeeding? Thanks!

    • Wondering the same!

      • I’m also curious about this

  15. A man, by the name of Wim Hof (The Iceman), is an advocate of cold therapy (cold showers, ice baths and cold outdoor temperatures). There are a few Ted Talks showing his work with the scientific community to prove that cold therapy, along with breathing exercises, has allowed him to strengthen and even somewhat control his immune system.

    I personally have found that when I take cold showers I feel invigorated, refreshed and, oddly enough, warmer and more comfortable throughout the day, whereas with hot showers tend to feel lethargic, rundown and my hands and feet get cold during the day. I will admit that cold showers initially take a lot of determination to get through the discomfort, but after time they do become comfortable and enjoyable.

  16. I wish I could try that, too bad there isn’t a cryotherapy clinic anywhere near where I live. Thank you for the informative post

  17. Somebody tagged me on this and I am glad they did. Cryotherapy is not cold thermogenesis using liquid water (CT) and the two should never be equated. They are not equivalent in any sense and the physics is quite different. because of how heat is transferred in gas an in liquid water. The difference has a massive effect on mitochondrial function.

    • lovely to see you post here Dr Jack.. outside of your forum wheeee… I was going to point this out from your stuff.. XXOO thank you for all you do and continue to do..

    • My 4 year old grandson has Leigh’s (mitochondrial) disease. Would either of these therapies help him? He was diagnosed a little over a year ago and is now a complete invalid unable to walk, talk, hear swallow or move any part of his body voluntarily. And what is the difference between the 2 therapies beside the obvious? Thank you for your knowledge and time.

  18. I would like to ask if Cryotherapy has been used for Type 1 Diabetics, with this autoimmune disease, who are insulin dependent, in good control but still struggles with balancing blood sugars, sporadic inflammation occurances, and digestion problems.

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