Cryotherapy

View of person with long hair in braid standing outside looking down at arm and holding ice pack to forearm
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Cryotherapy is a type of spa treatment, typically a form of hydrotherapy, in which cold temperature is applied to the body. In practice, cryotherapy might be an ice pack applied directly to an injury or whole-body immersion in a subzero cryotherapy tank. Cryotherapy treatment has been modernized and popularized as not just a method of injury recovery, but also a holistic wellness approach.

Benefits of Cold Therapy

Modern-day cryotherapy was developed in Japan in the 1970s specifically to ease pain and other symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Local application of cold–that is, focused application to a single part of the body–can create an analgesic, numbing, or anesthetic effect due to vasoconstriction. Blood flow to the area is slowed or even stopped, allowing cold to seep deeply into the tissues.

In wound treatment and medical procedures, application of cold or ice can stanch bleeding and can be used to aid amputation. Most modern uses of cryotherapy in massage therapy and other types of bodywork focus on injury treatment and rehabilitation. Reduced blood flow contributes to the numbing sensation and eases inflammation in the area, which can in turn reduce pain and risk of infection.

People with arthritis, athletes with sports-related injuries, and many who have experienced sprains or other joint trouble have reported positive outcomes and lessened pain simply from applying ice packs to the area of concern. Cryotherapy can also help prevent scarring or other types of tissue damage.

Types of Cryotherapy in Practice

Ice packs are one of the most popular and common types of cryotherapy, since they are easy to keep at home and have many other household uses. In bodywork or spa treatments, cryotherapy may take other forms:

  • Cold compression wraps
  • Cold stone or shell therapy
  • Ice baths or cold water immersion (used alone or in contrast to hot water immersion)
  • Whole-body cryotherapy
  • Acute liquid nitrogen treatments

Ice baths or contrast baths are more likely to be used in sports medicine or bodywork for athletes, as these techniques have been proven effective particularly for sports injury treatment. In these cases cryotherapy can accelerate healing, help prevent soreness, and decrease pain.

Focused liquid nitrogen is mostly used for dermal issues. Warts or pimples can be “frozen off” with a direct application of liquid nitrogen. This treatment is effective for many skin diseases, as well as non-melanoma skin cancers.

Compression wraps, which may be as simple as a washcloth saturated with very cold water, and cold stone or shell therapy are probably the most likely to be used by a massage therapist or bodywork professional. A therapist might apply a compression wrap to one area of the body and continues the regular massage session while the cold takes effect. Shells and rocks can rest on an injured part or be incorporated into a full-body massage.

Whole-Body Cryotherapy

Using a large chamber similar to a stand-up tanning booth, whole-body cryotherapy exposes the whole body (which may or may not include the head and face) to very cold air for anywhere from one to three minutes. This booth, called a cryochamber, releases pressured air cooled by liquid nitrogen to a temperature of -100 to -300 degrees F.

Proponents of whole-body cryotherapy say it reduces inflammation and stimulates the brain. By cooling skin temperature to around 30 degrees F, whole-body cryotherapy is said to flush toxins from the tissue, repair muscle damage, and reduce symptoms of conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Though limited studies have shown positive results of whole-body cryotherapy for athletes, research has yet to prove other benefits which, according to some supporters, include the following:

  • Weight loss
  • Alzheimer’s reversal
  • Migraine treatment
  • Insomnia relief
  • Depression and anxiety treatment

Risks of Cryotherapy Treatment

Most types of cold therapy, because they tend to be measured and focused on a specific area of concern, are not likely to pose a significant risk to an individual when administered by a massage therapist or bodywork professional. Cryotherapy is most risky when it is not regimented–that is, when the body is exposed to extreme cold for prolonged periods of time or if an individual is seeking cryotherapy for an issue it has not yet been proven to positively address. Professionals administering cryotherapy should be especially attuned to client health and specific needs to determine the appropriate cold treatment therapy.

Whole-body cryotherapy, especially, is still considered essentially experimental. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not cleared or approved whole-body cryotherapy to treat any health or medical concern. Because it is not regulated, there is a greater chance of damage. The FDA warns that risks can include hypoxia, hypothermia, asphyxiation due to exposure to liquid nitrogen gas, burns, frostbite, and eye injuries.

As with any treatment, always seek a qualified professional with the appropriate training and credentials to perform cryotherapy. If you are interested in treatment that addresses a significant injury or health issue, it is also best to consult with your primary health care provider before experiencing cryotherapy.

References:

  1. Allington, H. V. (1950). Liquid nitrogen in the treatment of skin diseases. California Medicine, 72(3), 153. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1520330
  2. Banfi, G., Lombardi, G., Colombini, A., & Melegati, G. (2010). Whole-body cryotherapy in athletes. Sports medicine, 40(6), 509-517. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.2165/11531940-000000000-00000
  3. Darlington, K. (2016). 6 benefits of cryotherapy for the body and soul. HoneyColony. Retrieved from https://www.honeycolony.com/article/6-benefits-of-cryotherapy-for-the-body-and-soul
  4. Holt, P. J. A. (1988). Cryotherapy for skin cancer: results over a 5‐year period using liquid nitrogen spray cryosurgery. British Journal of Dermatology, 119(2), 231-240. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2133.1988.tb03205.x/full
  5. Hubbard, T. J., & Denegar, C. R. (2004). Does cryotherapy improve outcomes with soft tissue injury? Journal of Athletic Training, 39(3), 278. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC522152
  6. Sartore, K. (2017). Cold therapy: The glacial shell technique. MASSAGE Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.massagemag.com/cold-therapy-glacial-shell-technique-85550
  7. Whole body cryotherapy (WBC): A “cool” trend that lacks evidence, poses risks. (2016). U.S Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm508739.htm