Cryotherapy: A Fad or a Cutting-Edge Therapy?

Feed The Dietitian | Cryotherapy: Is it a fad? Or is it cutting-edge? Cold therapy for athletes and health.

I am always a little skeptical about new trends, therapies...essentially all the “cure-alls” that are constantly hitting the market. If there were really a three-minute treatment that would solve my hip pain, decrease the inflammation in my post-half marathon legs, and give me that runner’s high, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?

Let me give you the facts and then you can decide. 

Cryotherapy stems from the Greek words 'cryo' (meaning cold) and 'therapy' (meaning cure) and essentially involves standing in a deep freezing tank for several minutes, something comparable to ice swimming. It supposedly sends your body into survival mode that somehow makes you healthier. While the technology behind the tank is new, the use of cryotherapy dates back as early as 2500 BC when the Egyptians used it to treat injuries and inflammation. 

Today, the use of whole body cryotherapy is being widely touted in the social media for its health and overall wellness benefits.  But, depending on whom you talk to, the technique is either the latest fad or a cutting-edge therapy.

Ever heard of athletes taking ice baths? 

Ice baths and targeted ice treatments are commonly used to treat different injuries and promote muscle recovery in athletes. 

Whole body cryotherapy is thought to mimic this mechanism, but quicker (hallelujah). Cryotherapy involves exposure to extremely dry air (usually around -250 degrees Fahrenheit) in a stand-in chamber for around 2 to 3 minutes.  You wear minimal clothing, typically just gloves, socks and slippers, and your underwear.

Why cryotherapy?

The procedure claims to:

    1.  Boost metabolism, literally burning calories 

    2.  Reduce inflammation, thus promoting healing and minimizing pain

    3.  Improve muscle recovery time, a plus for athletes 

    4.  Release endorphins into the bloodstream, providing a happiness boost

    5.  Produce collagen, improving skin elasticity and reducing the appearance of wrinkles and cellulite

But does it do all that it claims?

I am not an expert in cryotherapy so I did a little research on the technique's purported benefits. I read some scientific studies (there are only a handful of studies and many are small sized) and found little or no evidence that support the claims of cryotherapy. And despite promotions by many spas and wellness centers, as well as A-list athletes and celebrities, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not cleared the technique as safe or effective in treating medical conditions. 

The science may still be out, but there appears to be at least one thing researchers can agree on: Cold narrows blood vessels and limits blood flow, which reduces swelling and the associated pain. You can always try the old school method – grab an ice pack.

Unfortunately, I was not able to find any research proving that cryotherapy reduces cellulite (if you have some scientific evidence of its effectiveness in minimizing these pesky annoyances, please do share).

By the way, I did try cryotherapy ONCE and found it energizing.  I definitely felt those endorphins flowing into my bloodstream, but I can’t say that I noticed any improvement in my recovery time from long runs and intense workouts. I’ll keep everyone posted though, of course I did buy a small package of sessions.