As the weather gets colder, sitting in a -300° F chamber might seem like the last thing that you want to do to help your aching joints, inflammation and headaches. However, some suggest that might just be the cure for what ails you.
With cryotherapy, also called cold therapy, freezing temperatures are the key. The older and more familiar form uses ice or cold on a certain part of your body. Putting a cold pack on a sprain is one example.
The newer, and less studied, type has a person standing in a booth for up to four minutes in a spa or facility dedicated to cryotherapy. In the cryo chamber, the temperature is between -150° F and -300° F, a colder temperature than most people have experienced. This is known as whole body cryotherapy (WBC).
Cryotherapy supporters, including Floyd Mayweather, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mandy Moore, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Aniston, say it is useful in relieving a long list of pain syndromes from rheumatoid arthritis to fibromyalgia to generalized chronic pain. It has also been touted as a way to do everything from treating Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis to losing weight.
The treatment is said by many to be effective with regular use and is popular with athletes and celebrities. However, since this is fairly new, medical research doesn’t have much to say definitively about the benefits of cryotherapy. Spas and treatment facilities that offer WBC sing its praises.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says to pump the brakes and not get your hopes up until more research can be done. They note that, although the marketing may suggest otherwise, the WBC claims have not been supported by independent studies. In addition, the studies that have been completed generally focus on athletes, so whether the results can be transferred to the rest of us is unknown. Because of this, WBC has not been cleared or approved for use as a medical device.
There are several benefits that cryotherapy facilities boast of, keeping die-hard cryo fans coming back for more.
1. Joint and muscle pain relief
Just like using an ice pack on an injured muscle, cryotherapy may promote faster healing of injuries and increase blood circulation. Studies have shown cryotherapy offers relief from rheumatoid arthritis pain. The most improvement appears to be seen in cold-water immersion rather than WBC. Combining this therapy with physiotherapy and occupational therapy may be especially effective, allowing physical therapy to be more aggressive and see faster progress.
2. Lessening migraine symptoms
While cryotherapy probably won’t get rid of your migraines permanently, it may temporarily relieve or reduce the pain of migraine headaches. This is particularly effective when the cryotherapy focuses on the neck and cools the blood passing through intracranial vessels.
3. Mental health boost
Some research suggests that cryotherapy can be beneficial as an additional therapy in treating anxiety and depression. The freezing temperatures cause the release of adrenaline and endorphins and may be effective as a short-term treatment. It can also provide a boost of energy to propel you through the rest of your day. How long the effects last has not been studied.
4. Fighting inflammation
Reducing inflammation can help improve many chronic pain issues, as well as lessen the risk of diabetes, depression, dementia, arthritis and cancer.
5. Weight loss and glowing skin
In addition to the health benefits, there are claims cryotherapy is a useful tool for weight loss and higher metabolism and improving skin. The icy temperatures are thought to burn calories very quickly because the body burns extra calories to increase your internal temperature. However, there is not yet evidence that cryotherapy promotes long-term weight loss. Cryotherapy facials, or cryofacials, claim to exfoliate dead cells on the surface of the skin to expose healthy, glowing skin beneath.
More research is necessary to validate these claims, and the FDA says none of them have been proven, despite the glowing reviews the treatment may have from admirers.
“If you decide to try WBC, know that the FDA has not cleared or approved any of these devices for medical treatment of any specific medical conditions,” the FDA website states. “The FDA is also concerned that patients who opt for WBC treatment — especially in place of treatment options with established safety and effectiveness — may experience a lack of improvement or a worsening of their medical conditions.”
Cryotherapy spas warn that pregnant women, children, those with very high blood pressure, and people with heart conditions shouldn’t use cryotherapy. Ask your doctor if there are other reasons you shouldn’t consider WBC.
Investigate your spa before using. These low temperatures leave relatively little room for error. Frostbite, for example, has been reported when a person entered the chamber with damp socks. Talk to customers about their experiences and ask the spa about training for their employees.
What you can expect
If you decide to take the icy plunge into the world of cryotherapy, you can expect to pay around $60 per treatment. Insurance companies do not cover these treatments, so you will have to pay for it from your own pocket. You can wear shorts and a sports bra or enter in the buff. Cryotherapy patients also wear gloves and socks to keep them safe while they’re in the tank. The cryotherapy chamber is as tall as a person’s shoulders, and the person sits or stands (usually with his or her head exposed) for up to four minutes. Keeping sessions short ensures the body’s core temperature remains the same and only skin-surface temperature plummets.
Obviously, expect your skin temperature to drop significantly. Blood is sent to your core and away from your limbs and will be redistributed once you step out of the cryotherapy chamber. Blood flow will also be constricted, reducing inflammation. You can expect to feel energized and in a good mood after a session because of the release of endorphins and adrenaline.
The main take-home message is that WBC is said to do many things and treat many conditions. Scientific studies have yet to support most of the suggested benefits. With that understanding, and if your doctor says it is OK, there is little reason to not try, it assuming you have the extra money.