Athletes who follow a consistent exercise program will experience pain, swelling, and injuries from time to time. It’s just a part of being active. There are many ways we deal with this pain: pushing through it, taking time off to heal, or popping some ibuprofen. But one treatment option is growing in popularity: cryotherapy. What is it, and what are the cryotherapy benefits for athletes?
What Is Cryotherapy?
“Cryotherapy” is any treatment that uses freezing or near-freezing temperatures to treat an injury, pain, or other conditions.
It’s not a new concept. The benefits of cold for pain and inflammation have been known for centuries. The Ancient Egyptians used cold therapy some 5,000 years ago. In the 1800s, physicians began documenting their findings using extreme cold to treat everything from arthritis to tumors.
Modern whole-body cryotherapy first hit the scene in 1978 in Japan. It gradually grew in popularity, and by the 1990s, Americans were immersing themselves in cryo-chambers to heal ailments and rejuvenate their bodies.
Types of Cryotherapy
You have probably used cryotherapy yourself. If you’ve ever iced an injury, used cooling gels or creams, or endured a dreaded ice bath, you’ve experienced basic cryotherapy.
There are many applications of cryotherapy:
- Ice packs
- Cold sprays
- Ice baths, either for isolated parts of the body or the whole body
- Ice massage, where therapy is localized to the area of pain
- Whole-body cryotherapy
In this article, we’ll focus on that last method, whole-body cryotherapy. Over the past decade, whole-body cryotherapy has become wildly popular, especially for athletes. This method uses large cryochambers or rooms that blast frigid air for a brief period of time.
Cryochambers usually leave a patient’s head and hands exposed, blasting -250-degree air for a few minutes. Cryotherapy rooms are essentially an icy sauna where users walk into a room with temperatures between -112 to -180 degrees. The entire process lasts less than three minutes.
Cryotherapy Benefits for Athletes
For many athletes, cryotherapy represents fast-acting, drug-free pain relief and shortened recovery time. Though there is still conflicting scientific evidence regarding cryotherapy benefits for athletes, the treatment is popular.
Those who regularly undergo cryotherapy experience:
1. Reduced Recovery Time After Injury
Injuries are a seemingly unavoidable part of being an athlete. Taking the time to recover from an injury can be frustrating. There is some evidence to suggest that regular cryotherapy can aid in the recovery process, getting you back to the gym faster.
2. Pain and Inflammation Relief
For more than 7,000 years, humans have known that cold fights inflammation and pain. Just as an ice pack can reduce a swollen knee, cryotherapy acts to quickly reduce inflammation all over your body. Less inflammation means less pain, leading to immediate and long-lasting relief.
Cryotherapy is so effective in reducing pain that it’s often a recommended treatment for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
3. Increased Performance
A recent study found that endurance athletes who use cryotherapy have faster acute recovery times than those who don’t. These athletes saw enhanced oxygenation in their muscles and reduced cardiac strain compared to those who didn’t undergo whole-body cryotherapy.
4. Possible Mental Health Benefits
Whole-body cryotherapy might be beneficial for more than just your body. There are some indications that the therapy can impact mental and emotional health as well. In a 2008 study of people with depression and anxiety symptoms, one-third of patients who used cryotherapy reported a 50% reduction in their mood symptoms.
What the Skeptics Say About Cryotherapy
If this all sounds too good to be true, it just might be. While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence regarding the benefits of cryotherapy for athletes, medical research is limited on the practice. Scientific studies seem to show largely mixed results, with some suggesting that cryotherapy works well for athletes and others saying the promised results don’t hold up under scrutiny.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns consumers to be cautious of whole-body cryotherapy, citing a lack of scientific evidence. The FDA also mentions certain potential risks, like frostbite, oxygen deficiency, and damage to vital organs.
Even though there are few scientific studies about the benefits of cryotherapy, athletes nationwide continue to use this method to improve recovery time and lessen pain. And there is growing evidence that whole-body cryotherapy can benefit everything from mental health to eczema and arthritis.
Are you a fan of whole-body cryotherapy? We want to hear about your experience! Share your thoughts in the comments section.