Cryotherapy sounds like something you sleep in on your way to Mars, but it is actually simply what you are doing when you ice a sore ankle, take a refreshing cold shower, or ice your hand after burning it on a hot stove. Simply put, it is the use of ice or cold as therapy.
Does Ice Reduce Swelling?
One of the reasons your muscles get sore after a hard workout is due to the swelling which places pressure on your nerves and tissue. Controlling swelling around an injury is important because excessive swelling can create a low oxygen (hypoxic) environment that can lead to additional tissue damage, which in turn can slow healing. Swelling can also cause enlargement in joints and other tissues and irritate some nervous system components called mechanoreceptors (specialized neurons that transmit mechanical deformation information). This can also contribute to pain and soreness.
Aside from the study cited earlier that showed a potential for increased swelling after icing, it is generally acknowledged that if you have a soft tissue injury, icing should be started as soon as possible after the unfortunate event, for a duration of 15 to 20 minutes. You don’t even have to do anything fancy either, you can just use frozen ice cups, a bag of frozen peas, or crushed up ice cubes in a cloth.
For full body muscle soreness and swelling that isn’t caused by any particular injury, cold immersion works well, and can be done by simply spending 15-20 minutes in a cold bath (55 degrees Fahrenheit is adequately cold) or by taking a cold shower (as cold as your shower will go).
One new-ish recovery craze involves a fancy cold chamber, that looks like a single stall shower tube, that you step right into. Despite its growing popularity, the science behind these devices is pretty darn lacklustre. In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration actually stated that there is no evidence these technologies help to ease muscle aches, insomnia, anxiety, or provide any other medical benefit. In a Scientific American article, the FDA added to that statement, saying that it “has not approved or cleared any whole-body cryotherapy devices, and we do not have the necessary evidence to substantiate any medical claims being made for these devices.” The agency went on to say that it based the warning on its own informal review of published literature and generally recognized hazards associated with exposure to the gas that creates the cold conditions in the treatment chamber.
So, rather than paying big bucks (and I do mean big) to step into one of these fancy cryotherapy chambers, you can easily achieve the same or perhaps superior results with an icy cold shower or by diving into a cold pool, river, lake, or by simply turning off the heater in your car or in your home every once in a while.
More and more research is saying that cryotherapy doesn’t even deliver the same level of benefit that water exposure does. This is summed up nicely in the study called Cold Water Mediates Greater Reductions in Limb Blood Flow than Whole Body Cryotherapy, where they concluded that “Greater reductions in blood flow and tissue temperature were observed after Cold-water immersion in comparison with whole-body cryotherapy.”
This can likely be mostly chalked up to the fact that these chambers just make your skin cold, not your muscles. In fact, in a 2014 analysis of ice, cold-water and whole-body cryotherapy studies, they found that ice packs provided the biggest reductions in skin temperature and intramuscular temperature. 10 minutes of ice-pack usage cooled the skin between 32 and 47 degrees F, while three minutes of whole-body cryotherapy (the recommended time limit) resulted in between only six and 35 degrees F.
For my own experience, if these chambers could provide all the benefits that they tout (and they do tout a lot) then everyone who grew up (like I did) in a wintery cold environment would likely live forever. Or at least, never get injured.
Whether or not the Cryotherapy Chamber had an effect on my longevity has yet to be seen. Ask me again in 90 years, I guess.
I have used a cryo chamber a number of times and although it was fun and provided me with a bit of a non-caffeinated pick-me-up during some mid-afternoon sleepies, I can’t say that it cured my aches and pains, helped me burn fat, or protected me from seasonal illnesses. Whether or not it had an effect on my longevity has yet to be seen. Ask me again in 90 years, I guess.