If you’re a celebrity watcher, you’ve probably heard of whole-body cryotherapy. It seems to be the “next big thing” in the fitness world. And if Jennifer Aniston uses it, who wouldn’t want to try it? It’s even more popular among athletes for treating sports injuries. It could be just what you need to treat your chronic pain, right? If this sounds like you, read on to learn a little about whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) before making that appointment.
TLDR Whole-Body Cryotherapy Video
What Is Whole-Body Cryotherapy?
First, let’s talk a bit about cryotherapy. The word simply means cold therapy, but what does that look like?
If you’ve ever had a sports injury, you have likely used icepacks on the area to reduce swelling, inflammation, or muscle pain. You may have used a gel pack to control a migraine. Physical therapists use portable ice machines to apply ice for extended periods to a shoulder following surgery.
These are all examples of one form of cryotherapy. You may even have heard about the use of cryotherapy to kill cancer cells, which is still localized therapy, only inside the body rather than outside.
Now, imagine removing all your clothes and walking into a vertical freezer. You’re going to stand there naked and shivering for a full three (or four!) minutes.
That’s whole-body cryotherapy.
“super-cooling of the body for therapeutic purposes.”
How Does Whole-Body Cryotherapy Work?
Sounds crazy, right? Believe it or not, it’s not hard to find people who swear by it and do it regularly. But how does it work?
Whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) is what the FDA calls “super-cooling of the body for therapeutic purposes.” A user stands inside a confined space with their head exposed. (Think of a tin can with the lid removed.) Or they can bring a friend and use a larger chamber where both either sit or stand.
The chamber is then cooled with frigid air that is -200 degrees F to -300 degrees F. Some units use liquid nitrogen to create vapor; others use electricity to produce the extremely cold temperatures.
A treatment lasts anywhere from two to four minutes.
Cryotherapy temperature in Fahrenheit and Celsius?
The temperature in a cryotherapy chamber is -230°F / -85°c in nitrogen chambers and -160°F / -140°c in electric chambers. People who use cold therapy to reduce inflammation or improve their wellness often want the coldest temperature they can find.
What Are the Health Claims?
Although this “super-cool” therapy may not sound super cool to everyone, proponents of WBC say they benefit in all sorts of ways from it. Athletes say it decreases muscle soreness and increases sports performance. Others claim WBC can do everything from reducing inflammation to improving symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Some even use WBC as part of their beauty regimen, saying it tones the skin and improves their appearance. Others say it helps them lose weight.
And some say it provides pain relief from chronic conditions.
How Does Whole-Body Cryotherapy Affect the Body?
Can WBC really do all of these things, and how does it work? Here’s how the authors of one study describe the physiological effects of WBC: The reduction in skin temperature triggers constriction of the blood vessels and redirects blood from the arms and legs into the core of the body. This process leads to an increase in central blood pressure, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” system, the opposite of the sympathetic, or “fight or flight” system). The researchers state that this process leads to increased heart rate variability (HRV) (the difference between the resting and exercising heart rates). A higher HRV is associated with better health, but it may be more symptomatic than causative.
What Does the Science Say?
Researchers don’t seem to contest how whole-body cryotherapy works; that appears to be well-understood. But does current research support claims of treating specific conditions? The answer to that may surprise you: There is clinical evidence for many WBC claims, though most of it is limited or preliminary and not yet considered proven.
Here are a few areas where the research is finding possible benefit:
While it does appear that there are some benefits to WBC, there is also reason to be skeptical. These study examples only suggest efficacy; they don’t prove it. Moreover, many of these studies lack large sample sizes or control groups; two important factors in accurate scientific research. Higher-level research is needed to meet the burden of proof.
What’s more, one review study pointed out that there is no strong evidence that WBC is any better than less-expensive cryotherapy forms, such as ice packs or cold-water immersion. (Cold-water immersion is soaking a part of the body, such as a leg or an elbow, in cold water.)
A more recent clinical trial took that conclusion one step further, finding that cold-water immersion was more effective than WBC at getting the participants’ post-exercise blood flowing and lowering muscle temperatures back to normal levels. Localized cold water appears to give better results than the cold air used for whole-body cryotherapy.
Another study points out that while there is some evidence that WBC improves the perception of recovery from pain, it does not seem to translate into improvement in function. The long-term implications of WBC treatment are still unclear.
What’s more, the FDA is not on board with the trend. They have published a warning to consumers that they have not approved any WBC devices to treat any specific condition.
Whole-Body Cryotherapy Risks and Side Effects
So, many physicians and researchers are skeptical of WBC, and it may or may not have health benefits. But is it harmful? Are there any reasons not to try it?
Yes, for some people. Cold therapy is not recommended for people with diabetic or other types of neuropathy (nerve injury) because they may not feel the effect of the cold temperatures, which could make nerve damage worse. Pregnant women and people with hypertension, poor circulation, heart or lung disease should not use whole-body cryotherapy.
Moreover, these sessions are often expensive, and can cost up to several hundred dollars per session. For many people with chronic pain, spending money on unproven “treatments” is a path toward disappointment and financial troubles.
If you have a chronic condition, we recommend seeking medical advice before trying WBC.
As for side effects, there do appear to be some minor adverse effects, but they all seem to be temporary. These include numbness, tingling, redness, and irritation of the skin.
A Final Word on Whole-Body Cryotherapy
If you decide to try whole-body cryotherapy, be sure your expectations are reasonable. WBC may have a positive effect on your pain, and you may feel great after a session.
But the research suggests that the benefits are only temporary, so you may not experience a true reduction of pain or improvement of functionality. There is no high-quality research on long-term effects of cryotherapy of any kind, and less so on whole-body therapy.
If whole-body cryotherapy sounds like something you’d like to try, you may want to consider ice baths or cold-water immersion at home. You’ll likely get the same or better results with water versus frozen vapor, and you’ll likely save somewhere between $20 and $80 per session.
What questions do you have about experimental chronic pain treatments?
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