Cryotherapy: Separating the Myth from what Matters

Whole body cryotherapy (WBC)  is one of the hot new trends among today's health conscious individuals. While originally developed to help with diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, WBC has increasingly been utilized by professional athletes and other high level athletes looking for an edge. But how much of an edge is this really giving our athletes? If it is so useful should everybody be doing this? 

Proponents of WBC state that it can help with the following conditions:

  • Slow metabolism
  • Hormone imbalance
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Immune deficiencies
  • Athletic recovery
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Poor circulation
  • Obesity
  • Insomnia

When we actually looking into the studies though, the picture that is painted is a little different.

Only one study showed that WBC helps with acute recover during high-intensity intermittent exercise (<15 minutes). It is postulated to help by increasing oxygenation of working muscles and leading to decreased CV strain and increased work economy at sub-max intensities. The effect was small and only significant with high intensity exercise that lasts less than 15 minutes.

Another study showed that it enhances recovery of eccentric muscle performance when implemented between 2 training sessions. The recovery is limited to the following recovery session though and lost if not repeated. The effect size was also compared to Cold water immersion (CWI) and found to actually be smaller than this historical, and cheaper, treatment method.

The companies that perform WBC advocate that it can improve circulation, but one of the contraindications to therapy is individuals with poor circulation in their hands as this can risk permanent damage to digits.  Also the effect size has frequently been shown to be smaller than that achieved with CWI and simple ice packs. 

When should you avoid Cryotherapy?
The following conditions are contraindications for doing WBC:

  • Uncontrolled Hypertension
  • Serious Coronary Artery Disease
  • Arrhythmias
  • Raynaud's Phenomenon (White digits with cold)
  • Cold Allergies
  • Serious pulmonary disease
  • Obstruction of bronchus caused by cold.

With all of this, it is not likely that WBC will prove to be a better solution that current treatment modalities. At the minimum it is recommended that athletes wait until research has better born out what the long term effects are, both beneficial and harmful. So, for now, save the money you might spend on a single treatment of WBC and buy yourself a nice ice pack. That will last longer and to date seems to have a better chance of helping.

 

References:
1. Bleakley, C., Bieuzen, F., Davison, G., & Costello, J. (2014). Whole-body cryotherapy: Empirical evidence and theoretical perspectives. OAJSM Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 25. doi:10.2147/oajsm.s41655
2. Costello, J. T., Baker, P. R., Minett, G. M., Bieuzen, F., Stewart, I. B., & Bleakley, C. (2016). Cochrane review: Whole-body cryotherapy (extreme cold air exposure) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise in adults. Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine, 9(1), 43-44. doi:10.1111/jebm.12187
3. Scottsdale Cryotherapy. (n.d.). Retrieved May 16, 2016, from https://www.scottsdalecryotherapy.com/

 

Disclaimer:  Articles are based on real cases seen at Scottsdale Sports Medicine. The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images and information, contained on or available through this web site is for general information purposes only. Please consult your medical professional for individualized healthcare.