Cryotherapy is extreme cold therapy where the body is exposed to super cold temperatures for several minutes. Cryotherapy can be delivered to just one area, or for the whole body. Cryotherapy may have benefits for pain relief and muscle healing, weight loss, migraine headaches, reduced inflammation. preventing dementia, and reducing anxiety and depression.

What is Cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy is a treatment method that involves the use of near-freezing or freezing temperatures. Cryotherapy literally means "cold therapy," and it is a technique in which freezing temperatures surround the entire body for a few minutes. 

It is possible to focus cryotherapy on just one part of the body or you can also choose to go in for whole body cryotherapy treatment. Therapists administer localized cryotherapy in a variety of ways, including through ice massage, ice packs, coolant sprays, ice baths, and even through probes that are applied to the tissue directly. 

The theory behind whole body cryotherapy (WBC) is that you receive several health benefits by immersing the body in icy air for a few minutes.  Let us take a closer look at cryotherapy and cryotherapy benefits.

 

The term cryotherapy means 'cold therapy.' Cryotherapy is a treatment method in which the body, or a part of the body, is exposed to freezing temperatures for a few minutes.[1]

When you opt for cryotherapy to just one area of the body, then it is known as localized cryotherapy. You can also opt for whole-body cryotherapy, in which freezing temperatures engulf the entire body.[2]

The fundamental basis of cryotherapy is that by exposing the body to frigid temperatures for a few minutes, you receive a variety of health benefits. 

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How does Cryotherapy work?

The individual stands in an enclosed room or a small enclosure. The enclosure surrounds the body, with an opening for the head at the top. The air in the enclosure or chamber will drop to anywhere between negative 200-300 degrees F. The individual stays in this ultra-low temperature air for at least two to four minutes. 

Some health benefits are possible from just one session of cryotherapy. However, it is most effective when you opt for regular sessions. 

Athletes are known to use cryotherapy regularly, and many even use cryotherapy twice a day.[3] Other athletes opt for going daily for ten days and then reducing it to just once in a month after this. 

Let us look at cryotherapy benefits and whether it is genuinely worth exposing yourself to such freezing temperatures. 

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Cryotherapy Benefits

What are the Cryotherapy benefits?

1. Reduces Migraine Symptoms

Cryotherapy is believed to help reduce the symptoms of migraine by cooling and numbing the nerves in the neck area. A study4 done by the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa in Hawaii found that applying a neck wrap that contains at least two frozen ice packs to the carotid arteries in the neck drastically decreased migraine pain in the participants. 

It is believed that cryotherapy works in reducing migraine pain by cooling the blood that passes through the intracranial vessels. The carotid arteries are near the skin's surface and, therefore, accessible for applying the ice packs. 

 

2. Help in treating mood disorders

The ultra-cold temperatures in which whole body cryotherapy is performed are known to cause specific physiological hormonal responses. This response includes the release of endorphins, noradrenaline, and adrenaline. The release of these hormones is known to have a positive effect on people going through mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. 

A study done by the Wrocław Medical University in Poland in 2008 found that whole-body cryotherapy was significantly effective in the short term treatment of both depression and anxiety. [5]

 

3. Reduce arthritic pain

 Treatment with localized cryotherapy is known to be highly effective in treating many severe conditions. A study carried out by the Hochrhein-Institut für Rehabilitationsforschung in Germany found that whole-body cryotherapy can also dramatically reduce the pain in people having arthritis. [6]

The German study found that the whole body cryotherapy treatment was well tolerated by arthritis patients. It also allowed the patients to go in for more aggressive physiotherapy and occupational therapy afterward. This therapy also made their rehabilitation programs much more effective.

 

4. May treat low-risk tumors

Localized and targeted cryotherapy also has the potential to be successfully used as a cancer treatment.[7] When used for the treatment of cancer, it is referred to as cryosurgery. Many doctors also combine cryotherapy with chemotherapy to get better results. 

Cryosurgery freezes the cancer cells and surrounds them with ice crystals. This action stops the cancer cells from multiplying and spreading further. This novel treatment method is currently being used for the treatment of low-risk tumors in certain types of cancer, including prostate cancer.

 

5. Prevent Alzheimer's disease and dementia

It is believed that whole body cryotherapy can help prevent the development of Alzheimer's disease and some other types of dementia. 

According to research carried out by the Wroclaw Medical University in Poland in 2012, cryotherapy may be an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease. The effectiveness may be due to the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects of this treatment method. It could help fight against the oxidative stress and inflammatory responses that are typically associated with Alzheimer's disease. [8]

Further research is needed to determine whether cryotherapy can actually prevent the development of Alzheimer's disease and dementia. 

See: Functional Medicine for migraine healing

Cryotherapy side effects

Are there any side effects and risks of cryotherapy?

While there are many benefits of cryotherapy, but there are some risks and side effects associated with this treatment technique as well. Common side effects of various cryotherapy types include:

● Tingling

● Numbness

● Redness

● Irritation of the skin

These side effects, though, are nearly always temporary, and they tend to resolve within 24 hours itself. However, if you find that these side effects are still persisting after two days of receiving the therapy, then you should see your doctor again. 

Never use cryotherapy for longer than what is recommended for the therapy method you are using. For whole body cryotherapy, this means that you should not use cryotherapy for more than four minutes. If you are applying an ice pack or having an ice bath at home, then never apply ice to the same area for more than 20 minutes and always wrap the ice packs in a towel so that you do not damage your skin. 

People with diabetes or any other health condition that affects their nerves are not supposed to use cryotherapy. They may be unable to feel the full benefits of cryotherapy, and it could also cause further nerve damage.

 

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Summary

There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence and well-researched studies that indicate that cryotherapy can offer many health benefits. However, more research is still needed on whole body cryotherapy and its benefits. 

Since cryotherapy is a treatment technique that is still being researched, it is better that you discuss with your doctor first whether this is the right treatment option for you or not. If you are going in for cryotherapy treatment, then your doctor will discuss all the specific preparations you need to do beforehand itself. In some cases, this may include not eating or drinking for 12 hours before the therapy session. 

 

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