ON WHAT IT IS
Cryotherapy literally translates to cold (cryo) cure (therapy). It’s a broad term that encompasses a number of cooling methods including ice packs, ice baths and cryo chambers. Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) is when your entire body is exposed to very dry and cold temperatures for short periods of time in a room. WBC involves single or repeated exposure to temperatures of up to minus 160 degrees Celsius, in an attempt to increase healing, recovery and other health benefits.
ON HOW IT WORKS
Our circulatory system is significantly stimulated by temperature extremes with cold being a powerful constrictor of blood vessels. The physiologic reason for the vasoconstriction is that it shunts blood away from the extremities towards our vital organs, which maintains our core temperature and preserves life. When your body is exposed to WBC, skin capillaries constrict causing blood to return to the heart. This stimulates the receptors in the arteries that respond to pressure, which then cause an increase in parasympathetic stimulation of the heart.
The vasoconstriction and subsequent vasodilation is thought to be the mediator of the benefits associated with WBC. The alternating constriction and dilation helps with:
» delivering nutrients and substances needed for repair and recovery
» facilitating the removal of harmful metabolic by-products such as lactic acid and nitrogen compounds
» reducing swelling by removing excess fluid
Metabolism and fat loss: The effect on metabolism starts in the cooling process but is most apparent during re-warming. Cooling the body stimulates the parasympathetic system, which slows heart rate. However, after this initial period, the sympathetic (fight or flight) system is stimulated which causes a number of hormones to be produced, namely norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is produced under biological stress and assists the body by mobilising stored energy (namely fats and carbohydrates), making them available to be burned as fuel.
Norepinephrine also stimulates thermogenesis (heat production) in brown fat tissue, but there’s no meaningful research to indicate that cryotherapy improves body composition.
Injury and recovery: Cryotherapy is commonly used in the recovery process after strenuous exercise or injury:
» it has anti-inflammatory effects via reducing the production of reaction oxygen species (ROS).
» it reduces nerve conduction, which in turn reduces pain sensation and increases pain tolerance.
» it reduces the damage to muscle tissue associated with either vigorous activity or injury.
Exercise can be brutal on our cellular structures and the force that occurs during intense exercise creates cellular microtears and a significant inflammatory cascade. While this may seem bad, it’s actually a key part of the adaption process. You might feel some pain during your first training session, but you quickly start to add weights or increase running speed because your body adapts. Cryotherapy may reduce pain and inflammation during the recovery process, but it might also blunt your training response, impeding your results.
Some research shows a favourable effect on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which could be beneficial for athletes on a strict training schedule. However, it does not seem to improve functional recovery after training sessions.
Arthritis: Most people suffering chronic pain associated with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and other autoimmune conditions report significant symptom reductions.
Skin: Cryotherapy websites report significant benefits for skin, from a reduction in blemishes and pore size to an increase in collagen and elasticity. However, there is no evidence to support this.
As with any medical procedure, it’s important to ascertain the skills and training of the person performing the procedure. WBC appears to be reasonably low risk and could be a useful co-therapy for pain management.
There have been reports of frostbite and blistering from WBC but this appears to be due to oversight of the practitioner, rather than an issue with the procedure itself. There may also be a risk associated with inhalation of nitrogen gas when it is used to create the sub-zero temperatures.
ON IDEAL CANDIDATES
The potential application for cryotherapy seems to be limited to pain management, therefore I’d recommend it for those in significant pain from an injury, strenuous training or a chronic condition. But I’d consider the cost and whether alternative therapies would be more suitable first.
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