There are so many options available these days to help optimize recovery from training and injuries. Some are grounded in research and some have been around “forever.” It can be very hard to differentiate between what’s legit and what’s not. One treatment that’s becoming more and more popular of late is cryotherapy for athletes.
Let’s discuss what it is, how it works, and all the other good stuff around it in the even a client asks you about it or you want to try it yourself. I personally haven’t been so bold to try this modality out myself, but after writing about it, I might…maybe next summer when the Phoenix desert is scorching hot. Here are the facts about cryotherapy with regard to its purported benefits to the body post-workout and post-injury!
What is Cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy is a treatment that exposes the skin to subzero temperatures in a chamber that’s filled with liquid nitrogen. It triggers the release of endorphins and anti-inflammatory molecules such as the neurotransmitter norepinephrine that’s responsible for increasing oxygen circulation within the bloodstream. This is important because it enhances alertness, mental focus, and memory recall. This cold therapy was first utilized in Japan in 1978 to treat rheumatic diseases and over the past 20 years, research has shown it to be an effective treatment for chronic pain and inflammation associated with lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS), fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis. It’s also been shown to have a balancing effect on serotonin levels and can increase the immune system’s effectiveness. Sometimes it’s referred to as Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC).
Potential Benefits to Athletes:
- Improves recovery time
- Aids in weight loss
- Improved stamina
- Decreased fatigue
- Increased energy
- Assists cell survival
- Activates biological regeneration
- Helps recovery from sports injury*
- Drains toxins and boosts lymph & blood circulation
* Research shows it may help in the rehabilitation of adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder
Other Potential Benefits:
- Activated regulatory functions, cells regenerated
- Boost of the body’s immune response
- Lowered symptoms of stress and burn-out
- Opens up blood pathways for more oxygenation
- Helps with insomnia and depression
- Balances the parasympathetic & sympathetic nervous systems
- Enhances functioning of the vascular system by delivering oxygen and nutrients to bodily tissues
How does Cryotherapy work?
When the body is in a cryotherapy chamber, it is exposed to temperatures between -200°F to -250°F for up to three minutes. During this time, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated by the skin’s cold receptors, which causes vasoconstriction. Once the body’s exposure to the cold ends, it’s followed by rapid vasodilation. During this process, blood flow to the skin’s surface and extremities is redirected to insulate the body’s vital organs and to maintain core temperature. The body also kicks into thermoregulation mode creating a cascade of events involving the body’s crucial survival systems. This is the reason for the documented benefits of cryotherapy.
Cryotherapy is NOT for everyone. Here are the contraindications:
- Unregulated high blood pressure
- Poor circulation
- Sensitivity to cold
- Neuropathy of the legs and/or feet
- Presence of cold-triggered allergy symptoms
- History of major heart or lung disease
Cost and Controversy?
Currently in the United States, cryotherapy has not been approved by the FDA and the American Academy of Dermatology doesn’t recommend it. As such, it is not covered by insurance companies and costs can vary based on treatment duration and frequency. On the other hand, the research indicates no adverse side effects of this treatment and due to the body’s release of hormones and thermoregulation response, it does not go into a state of shock or hypothermia despite the temperature. Some research states that there might be a placebo effect and the positive results are subjective reports. So, it’s probably better to save money and go for more cost-effective and historically conventional cryotherapy treatments such as ice packs.
Many companies providing cryotherapy will have packages and programs for new clients. I’ve researched costs but they have varied so much given the economic circumstances brought on by COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders. Many facilities currently (at the time of writing this) are offering steep discounts that would negate writing prices into this blog and they also vary based on geography. My best suggestion to find pricing is to search for a cryotherapy provider near you and to contact them. While it is unregulated, I would also recommend researching the company and the individuals providing the service. Most companies require their cryotherapy technicians to have a professional and/or medical background and to have successfully completed a training program.
Final words and a caveat from a Fit Pro: