Cold remedies have been used since ancient times to treat a wide range of conditions. Research indicates that by exposing the body to extremely cold temperatures, a physiological and psychological reaction can occur. This reaction has been shown to trigger a shift in various bodily systems and compounds, which may result in pain relief, improve post-exercise muscle recovery, and increase mood and memory. (1)
What is cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy, or cold therapy, is the process of exposing the body to extremely cold temperatures for short periods of time—about two to three minutes. Cryotherapy can be applied to the entire body (whole-body cryotherapy) or to select areas (partial-body cryotherapy), depending on the area of the body you wish to target. Cold therapy is often done by using a liquid nitrogen cryotherapy machine, ice-cold water, or ice packs. (6)
Cryotherapy is most popular among athletes and individuals with inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia. The sudden change in body temperature stimulates a physiological response, which has been shown to decrease inflammation and pain as well as trigger reactions by the circulatory, hormonal, and immune systems. (8)
1. Mental health
Research indicates that therapeutic interventions, such as aerobic exercise, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and light therapy, can be effective ways to improve mental well-being in individuals with depression. (4) Whole-body cryotherapy may be another therapeutic option for improving mental health. Individuals with mild cognitive impairment reported less severe depressive symptoms and a significant improvement in mood after ten whole-body cryotherapy sessions. (7)
Another study found that in individuals with chronic anxiety or depression, improvement in symptoms occurred after only five whole-body cryotherapy sessions and continued to improve after the tenth and 15th sessions. (4) Whole-body cryotherapy may regulate the circadian clock and increase the secretion of stress-reducing beta-endorphins, which may result in the improvement of mental health; however, further research is necessary to fully understand this connection. (1)(11)
2. Muscle recovery
Exercise training can induce muscle damage, which can trigger an inflammatory response. Muscle soreness or swelling can occur after physical activity, potentially impacting future performance. (1) Cryotherapy has become a popular strategy for improving muscle recovery among athletes.
For runners, whole-body cryotherapy reportedly enhanced psychological recovery and decreased the perception of muscle fatigue and pain after as little as one session. In athletes, daily cryotherapy sessions have been shown to reduce creatine kinase levels, a marker of muscle damage, by up to 40%. (5)
Another key factor in muscle recovery is regular, high-quality sleep. Sleep deprivation increases pro-inflammatory markers and reduces muscle recovery and repair. (12) In competitive athletes, cryotherapy was reported to increase perceived sleep quality by 15% and decrease fatigue. (1) It’s important to note that mild inflammation supports muscle growth and strength, which may be blunted if cryotherapy occurs to soon after exercise. (3)
3. Pain relief
Whole-body cryotherapy is most commonly used to alleviate inflammatory conditions that involve pain, joint swelling, and mobility limitations. (7) Individuals with chronic pain disorders, such as fibromyalgia, have indicated that regular cryotherapy has improved their quality of life. (1) Partial-body cryotherapy using an ice pack can be applied to the inflamed area for some pain relief; however, ongoing whole-body cryotherapy sessions tend to yield the best results. (1)(9)
It’s important to use cryotherapy chambers only with safety personnel present and use caution when performing cold therapy at home. Cryotherapy machines can produce air as cold as -220˚ F (-140˚ C), which can damage skin and lead to frostbite without proper preparation. (5) Additionally, liquid nitrogen is often used to create cold temperatures in the cryotherapy chamber. Exposure to nitrogen fumes in a space with improper ventilation can cause oxygen deficiency, which can lead to loss of consciousness. (10)
The bottom line
Cryotherapy can be an effective stimulant and pain reliever. It can be done at home using cold water or ice packs, or conducted in specialized cryotherapy chambers. It’s important to use cryotherapy with the guidance of health and safety personnel. Without proper precautions, exposure to extreme temperatures can be dangerous.
To find out if cryotherapy is right for you, consult with your integrative healthcare practitioner.
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- Bouzigon, R., Grappe, F., Ravier, G., & Dugue, B. (2016). Whole- and partial-body cryostimulation/cryotherapy: Current technologies and practical applications. Journal of Thermal Biology, 61, 67–81.
- Buijze, G. A., Sierevelt, I. N., van der Heijden, B. C. J. M., Dijkgraaf, M. G., & Frings-Dresen, M. H. W. (2016). The effect of cold showering on health and work: A randomized controlled trial. PloS One, 11(9), e0161749.
- Earp, J. E., Hatfield, D. L., Sherman, A., Lee, E. C., & Kraemer, W. J. (2019). Cold-water immersion blunts and delays increases in circulating testosterone and cytokines post-resistance exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 119(8), 1901–1907.
- Krzystanek, M., Romańczyk, M., Surma, S., & Koźmin-Burzyńska, A. (2021). Whole body cryotherapy and hyperbaric oxygen treatment: New biological treatment of depression? A systematic review. Pharmaceuticals , 14(6).
- Lombardi, G., Ziemann, E., & Banfi, G. (2017). Whole-body cryotherapy in athletes: From therapy to stimulation. An updated review of the literature. Frontiers in Physiology, 8, 258.
- Peres, D., Sagawa, Y., Jr, Dugué, B., Domenech, S. C., Tordi, N., & Prati, C. (2017). The practice of physical activity and cryotherapy in rheumatoid arthritis: Systematic review. European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine, 53(5), 775–787.
- Rymaszewska, J., Lion, K. M., Stańczykiewicz, B., Rymaszewska, J. E., Trypka, E., Pawlik-Sobecka, L., Kokot, I., … & Szcześniak, D. (2021). The improvement of cognitive deficits after whole-body cryotherapy – A randomised controlled trial. Experimental Gerontology, 146, 111237.
- Rymaszewska, J., Ramsey, D., & Chładzińska-Kiejna, S. (2008). Whole-body cryotherapy as adjunct treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders. Archivum Immunologiae et Therapiae Experimentalis, 56(1), 63–68.
- Sari, Z., Aydoğdu, O., Demirbüken, İ., Yurdalan, S. U., & Polat, M. G. (2019). A better way to decrease knee swelling in patients with knee osteoarthritis: A single-blind randomised controlled trial. Pain Research & Management: The Journal of the Canadian Pain Society, 2019, 8514808.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2016). Whole body cryotherapy (WBC): A trend that lacks evidence, poses risks. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/whole-body-cryotherapy-wbc-cool-trend-lacks-evidence-poses-risks
- Veening, J. G., & Barendregt, H. P. (2015). The effects of beta-endorphin: State change modification. Fluids and Barriers of the CNS, 12, 3.
- Vitale, K. C., Owens, R., Hopkins, S. R., & Malhotra, A. (2019). Sleep hygiene for optimizing recovery in athletes: Review and recommendations. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 40(8), 535–543.