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Even though cryotherapy has been around for more than forty years in clinical practice, it is still a highly experimental treatment with both risks and benefits. Cryotherapy has proven particularly helpful for athletes and those with arthritis. The below article discusses what cryotherapy is, as well as weighing both the pro's and con's to help you understand when it's ultimately useful and when it's not.
If you're interested in trying cryotherapy, please contact a healthcare professional before signing up for treatment and allow them to assess if it can benefit you. Mya Care can help to connect you with expert healthcare providers who know about cryotherapy and can offer the right assistance for your condition.
What is Cryotherapy exactly?
Cryotherapy is any medical therapy that involves immersing either the entire body or part of the body in extremely cold temperatures for a few minutes (typically 1-3 minutes). The temperatures can range from just above freezing point but are commonly between -100°C to -140°C (-148°F to -220°F).
The concept of treating certain conditions with the cold is not a new one. Ancient physicians would instruct their patients to either bathe in or drink very cold water to treat a large variety of diseases. Modern doctors have also been using forms of cryotherapy involving liquid nitrogen to freeze off and remove warts for many years with great success. This form of treatment is known as a type of 'partial-body cryotherapy,' of which there is also 'whole-body cryotherapy.'
Whole-body cryotherapy was introduced into clinical practice around four decades ago; when Professor Toshiro Yamauchi observed vast improvements in his arthritic patients after they returned from taking active Winter vacations, skiing in icy mountainous regions.
Most cryotherapy treatments are used in the sports arena by athletes to speed up recovery and improve their performance outcomes. As a result, the majority of research carried out on cryotherapy is focused on whole-body techniques where the patient is instructed to climb inside a tank or vessel, immersing their whole body in freezing cold air or water.
Top 10 Cryotherapy Benefits
Here are the top ten benefits that cryotherapy is known for, however this list is not exhaustive. In spite of a lack of public awareness about it, cryotherapy actually has many benefits!
1. Speeds Muscle Recovery After Exercise or Injury
One of the main benefits associated with whole-body cryotherapy is that it helps athletes recover after exercise. One paper highlights that it does this through several mechanisms, one of which involves decreasing the body's temperature. This in turn lowers the energy output the body would have otherwise spent on cooling itself down after breaking a sweat, therefore helping to improve post-exercise energy levels, recovery time and the perception of fatigue. Whole-body cryotherapy also proved to be more effective than cold water immersion at lowering muscle stiffness and soreness after intensive exercise when compared to a placebo group.
Limited research has furthermore argued that cryotherapy may help to remove post-exercise toxins from the muscles by activating the mitochondria in muscle tissues. The mitochondria are also largely involved in energy production and their activation would also imply additional energy, further contributing to the understanding that cryotherapy helps lower the effects of fatigue and promotes post-workout recovery.
In terms of muscle injury, many reviews and papers have reported sped-up recovery from muscular and skeletal injuries; however, the mechanisms underlying these results are as of yet unknown.
2. May Offer Pain Relief
In one of the papers quoted above, cryotherapy was noted to lower the firing rate of the nervous system, which in turn reduced the feeling and perception of pain. Further research has shown that in athletes with severe muscle damage, whole-body cryotherapy lowered muscle pain by as much as 80%!
Other experiments performed on elderly men with chronic lower back pain supported the idea that whole-body cryotherapy can reduce pain. However, the results suggest that consistent daily cryotherapy is more effective than doing it twice a week.
3. Reduces Inflammation
Researchers speculate that cryotherapy works to reduce both pain and inflammation in general by balancing out both inflammatory compounds and antioxidants in the body.
In studies performed on athletes, oxidative stress was found to be greatly reduced after 10 days of cryotherapy used during intensive training. Oxidative stress is one of the leading causes of inflammation in the body.
Limited evidence also suggests that whole-body cryotherapy increases the amount and activity of bodily antioxidants, suggesting that it would help to counteract inflammation by preserving our innate antioxidant status. Multiple clinical trials conducted on both humans and rat have also supported these findings.
4. Kick-Starts the Immune System
10 days of cryotherapy in health men proved to boost the overall number of white blood cells substantially, particularly lymphocytes and monocytes.
A few studies have also mentioned how both cold-water immersion and cryotherapy kick starts our mitochondria and their growth.
Apart from providing the body with all of it's energy, the mitochondria also play a large role in the way our immune systems function as a whole at the cellular level. They are responsible for releasing the free radicals associated with oxidative stress and inflammation when they malfunction; as well as play an equal role in producing bodily antioxidants that protect the body from a foreign virus or lower inflammation - precisely what they do when they are supported and protected.
Cryotherapy may help preserve our mitochondria, boost immune cell count and therefore increase the competence of our immune system as a whole!
5. Helps Lower Anxiety
Preliminary evidence suggests that cryotherapy may be used to lower anxiety levels.
One experiment proved that it increased levels of norepinephrine, the anti-stress hormone in the body; the primary job of which is to inhibit adrenaline - the stress chemical. In other studies, patients with both depression and anxiety found major improvement in their symptoms after two weeks of immersing in a cryotherapy tank for 2-3 minutes a day.
In one of the studies quoted below on arthritic patients, whole-body cryotherapy was shown to boost the levels of endorphins in the blood stream. Endorphins are feel-good chemicals that are known to boost mood - precisely the reason why we enjoy chocolate and feel relaxed after a good workout!
6. Potential Anti-Cancer Benefits
For specific tumors, cancer cryotherapy is a fast-growing niche in the medical world. In fact, freezing tumors is quite a common technique that has been around since the 1850's and is known to shrink them in size before ultimately obliterating them! Today it is commonly used for skin cancers that are easily accessible without much of a hassle. For internal tumors however, this treatment therapy was very difficult to perform properly and was mostly unsuccessful - that is, until very recently in the last decade or so.
Nowadays, while still a highly experimental practice, surgical techniques and equipment exist that allow healthcare physicians to make neat incisions and freeze specific tumors inside the body; even allowing the surgeon to watch the process on a television screen! For the most part, these surgeries have only shown success for prostate tumors, but yield promising results for the future treatment of other cancer types too.
In terms of whole-body cryotherapy, no research exists to confirm that it has anti-cancer effects. However, it was proven by the 2018 winners of the medical Nobel prize that by revving up the immune system and substantially increasing the white blood cell count of cancer patients, tumors could be completely eradicated, changing the face of cancer therapies for the next decades to come. Due to the fact that cryotherapy is known to dramatically bolster the immune system, it may have an active anti-tumor effect that has merely not been tested for, but only time will tell.
7. Promising Treatment for Arthritis
As mentioned above, cryotherapy actually became introduced to the medical world as a therapy due to the fact that it yielded great promise for those with rheumatoid arthritis.
Cryotherapy has been used with major success in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, helping to lower pain, inflammation and enhancing the patient's mobility. The patient's themselves also tend to notice a difference in their symptoms after cryotherapy sessions, reporting reduced pain and less of a need to use painkillers. These effects are further enhanced when cryotherapy is combined with moderate physical exercise.
As with other painful conditions, short daily treatments are more effective than less frequent treatment. Benefits of cryotherapy tended to last for up to a month in patients with arthritis.
8. Reduces Swelling and Edema
Most people understand that using an ice pack on a wounded area helps to reduce the swelling. Cryotherapy works in much the same way and has been reported as highly effective at reducing both swelling and edema.
9. May Improve Quality of Sleep
Only one study has proved that cryotherapy may improve quality of sleep. In professional football players undergoing partial-body cryotherapy, it was shown that 3 minutes of the treatment reduced the amount of time they moved around during sleep and induced a deeper sleep overall. More research would be needed to assess whether this result is the same for everyone however.
10. Appears to Improve Cholesterol Markers
In a long-term six month study carried out on obese individuals, the combination of both exercise and cryotherapy appeared to lower "bad" LDL cholesterol and improve "good" HDL cholesterol, lowering and balancing out overall cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, this intervention did not invoke weight loss; however, it did not invoke weight gain either!
Cryotherapy Side Effects & Contraindications
Cryotherapy has been recognized to be an overall safe treatment with minimal side effects. In fact, the only negative side effects reported in the research literature are that it:
- Temporarily increases blood pressure
- May be unpleasant for those who hate the cold
Naturally, the cold can have bad ramifications for people who battle to regulate their temperature in general. Those who struggle to breathe, who have issues with blood circulation or who suffer from autoimmune conditions are also not advised to use cryotherapy, even though there have been no direct implications in the literature that cryotherapy is bad for people with ailments of this nature.
Cryotherapy is also contraindicated in the following cases for similar reasoning:
- Acute respiratory system disorders
- Autoimmune Diseases
- Cardiovascular diseases (angina, cardiac failure)
- Cold intolerance
- Local blood flow disorders
- Mental disorders that prevent patient cooperation during the procedure
- Purulent-gangrenous cutaneous lesions
- Raynaud disease
- Sympathetic nervous system neuropathies
NOTE: No information exists as of yet regarding cryotherapy and pregnancy. If you are pregnant, avoid going for cryotherapy as it may have severe consequences on the outcome of your baby.
Cryotherapy Safety Precautions
Aside from any medical contraindications, most cryotherapy tanks make use of liquid nitrogen to cool the air or water. There have been a few documented cases of patients who received cold-burn injuries after a pipe malfunctioned in a cryotherapy tank and their skin was directly exposed to exceptionally cold temperatures.
As far as the research goes, longer exposures to cryotherapy that went over 3 minutes at a time were often indicative of adverse reactions. Professional healthcare providers will never expose you to more than 3 minutes at a time, however.
It is also pertinent to note here that cryotherapy is not approved by the FDA or any other health board as a safe and effective treatment as of yet.
In this respect, it is very important to ensure that the healthcare provider you opt to do cryotherapy with is a credible professional and that they are prepared to take responsibility in the event that something goes wrong with their equipment!
Do the Pros Outweigh the Cons: Who Would Benefit the Most from Cryotherapy?
As far as the research goes, the pros are very likely to outweigh the cons, assuming the machinery being used is in proper working order. Cryotherapy is safe, effective and will likely benefit most people who try it; provided it is not contraindicated in their case.
The following individuals are likely to benefit the most from cryotherapy:
- Those with wounds
- Trauma and PTSD cases
- Certain cancer patients
- Allergic disease patients
- People who suffer from chronic inflammation and pain, such as those with arthritis
- Depression and anxiety patients
- People who would like to keep their overall health balanced
- Those who need to boost their immune system
While cryotherapy has been around for a very long time and its benefits are very well documented in preliminary scientific research, there is little understanding as to how it actually works to produce its positive effects. More testing also needs to be carried out to confirm what temperatures are best for what conditions as well as the optimal exposure time.
In this respect, cryotherapy is still a largely experimental protocol and we advise consulting a healthcare professional before signing up for a cryotherapy treatment.
Book your cryotherapy treatment with a world-class healthcare provider through the Mya Care platform today!
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