Cryotherapy: What Is It And How Does It Work?

This ice-cold treatment is super hot right now. But is it effective?

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Picture this: You have a whole afternoon to yourself to do anything you want. You consider the possibilities: strolling through a bookstore, inhaling the beautiful smell of fresh, new pages, hitting the Target aisle to stock up on 8,000 more pillows and throws that you’ll probably never use, or indulging in some solo pampering. But instead of hitting the spa for a relaxing massage or getting your toes updated with a brightly colored pedicure, you consider trying something totally new: cryotherapy. Unlike a warm blanket or the reassuring hands of a massage therapist, you will be plunged into literal below-freezing temperatures and be subjected to the frigid, cold air as you shiver in a chamber specifically designed to keep you chilly. Sound relaxing? Maybe not, but whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) is one of the latest crazes in the wellness world, and proponents swear it has a lot of benefits, like decreasing pain, improving muscle recovery, and boosting circulation. So does it work? And should you try it? Here’s what you should know before paying someone to let you plunge into an icy air bath.

What is cryotherapy?

Put simply, cryotherapy is “cold therapy” for the skin and body. According to an article published in the Journal of Sports Medicine (JSM), whole-body cryotherapy, just one of many types of cryotherapy, involves exposing the entire body to temperatures between –100 degrees Celsius and –140 degrees celsius, which translates to between –148 degrees Fahrenheit and –220 degrees Fahrenheit, for therapeutic purposes. This is done in a special chamber that controls the temperature for short bursts of time, usually between two and five minutes. The JSM article explains that whole-body cryotherapy was originally developed to treat chronic, painful medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) by reducing inflammation. Before long, athletes decided to hack the frigid treatment to perform better on the courts and fields. In the world of athletes, who tend to use the treatment within a day of exercise, the purported benefits of cryotherapy include a reduction in tissue inflammation, instant and ongoing pain relief, and increased muscle recovery. Now, however, cryotherapy is going beyond treatment for people with MS, RA, and pro athletes and being extended to anyone who wants to try to benefit from making like they’re in Antarctica for a few minutes. Typically, you can choose between whole-body cryotherapy or a targeted treatment, like a cryotherapy facial, which applies cold air just to the face. So how exactly is voluntarily freezing yourself beneficial in any way, shape, or form? Madeline Lovell, the owner of Celsius STL Cryotherapy in St. Louis, says that it’s all in the science of what’s going on inside the body while the outside of your body is freezing its pants off (if you’re even wearing any, that is). Celsius STL has two brick-and-mortar cryotherapy chambers and a mobile cryotherapy chamber that travels to local gyms, spas, chiropractors’ offices, and businesses. “Common sense tells you that standing in [negative] 200 degrees for two to three minutes would make you frozen solid,” Lovell says. “However, the cool temperature only affects your skin’s surface, triggering your thermoreceptors to send electrical impulses to the brain making you ‘think’ you are freezing. This sends your body into a defensive mode by quickly transporting the body’s blood, nutrients, and resources to the organs in the core. During this process the body starts oxygenating your blood, flushing it of toxins and lactic acid. Immediately after exiting the cryosauna, your body starts returning to its normal state by increasing blood flow of your newly oxygenated blood back out to your limbs. Your body responds to the increased blood flow by dilating the blood vessels to distribute heat. The body starts absorbing the blood, which is now enriched with erythrocytes, oxygen, collagen, and other essential nutrients.” Long story short, there’s a lot going on beneath the cold surface of your skin when you go cryo. And Lovell says a great deal of the cryotherapy magic happens after your time in the chamber is over, too, as the treatment boosts your body’s natural healing abilities, reducing swelling, inflammation, and joint and muscle pain; increasing your metabolism; reducing cellulite; speeding up muscle recovery; and much more. In addition to health and wellness cryotherapy treatments, the medical world also has harnessed some Frozen powers to treat certain skin conditions. There is another intervention called cryosurgery, which uses extremely cold temperatures from liquid nitrogen to destroy tumors or moles on the skin. Unlike cryotherapy, which is supposed to provide benefits to the skin, muscles, and blood vessels, however, cryosurgery is extremely different from whole-body cryotherapy in that it’s meant to kill off unwanted tissue by literally freezing it.

What Cryotherapy Feels Like

If you get the treatment, you can expect to visit a special cryotherapy center, sometimes called a cryosauna, that features chambers designed specifically for the therapy. Cryotherapy chambers often resemble upright tanning beds with open tops. You stand inside the chamber with your head sticking out as frigid air, which is produced from liquid nitrogen cooling within the internal elements of the chamber, flows around you. Lovell explains that people who get the treatment step into the chamber with gloves, socks, and shoes that the center provides because it’s important to avoid getting in with any wet or damp skin or clothing because it can freeze, which is a serious risk considering frostbite can damage tissue in less than 10 minutes in temperatures under –35 degrees Fahrenheit. In discussing precautions such as socks, gloves, and shoes, Lovell goes on to say, “Cryotherapy has over 30 years of research in order to perfect the treatment process for optimal client experience.” So what does it feel like? Lovell describes the sensation of the whole-body treatment as akin to rolling around in the snow naked. There’s a visual you’re not likely to forget, right? However, she swears it’s not painful in any way and that a specialist is nearby during the entire procedure. “You feel a pins and needles sensation during the treatment, but it disappears the second you step out of the chamber,” she says. “Cryotherapy is definitely cold, and you will feel uncomfortable, but it is not painful. It’s a dry cold, that feels different than a wet cold. It’s not like putting your hand or body in a bucket of ice, which hurts. There is no actual freezing, just the feeling of being cold.” Health blogger Christina Rice chronicled her experience with cryotherapy on her site, Addicted to Lovely, where she walks readers through the entire process at a treatment center in Hollywood. The center she visited actually had a chamber that enclosed her entire body, head and all—more like a shower—and she and her friend, who underwent the treatment together, donned face masks, headbands, towels, and thick gloves to protect their bodies. Rice and her companion stayed in the chamber for three minutes and used the “medium” setting of cold, which she described as similar to being outside on a cold day. “My eyelashes got frosted white and the hair on my arms was standing up straight, which really entertained me,” she wrote. Rice said that she was a fan of the procedure and that she experienced a huge boost of mental clarity and whole-body relaxation, “like a really good massage without the soreness” after the treatment. She also tried a cryotherapy facial, which she says helped reduce some of her facial discoloration. Lovell does warn that there’s an unexpected side effect of cryotherapy you should know about. “[It] makes your body crave extra rest at night, causing you to sleep deeper and longer when you decide to go to bed,” she says. Bring on the pillows!

What are the benefits of cryotherapy?

According to Lovell, cryotherapy has benefits for pretty much everyone, “whether you are an athlete, a mom, a couch potato, grandpa, or average Joe.” She notes that she does see a lot of athletes seeking to use cryotherapy for recovery and that women especially turn to cryotherapy as an easy way to get a short and effective workout in. Lovell claims that just one session of cryotherapy can burn between 500 and 800 calories and boosts your metabolism hours after the treatment is over. She also adds that older clients or clients with joint issues may find relief from joint pain and muscle aches and those with skin conditions such as acne, blemishes, eczema, and psoriasis might find the cold air helps with clearing up their skin. Lovell points HealthyWay readers to this long list of benefits that cryotherapy can provide, but remember: None of these claims are endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which actually warns that “not a single WBC device has been cleared or approved by the agency in support of [any] claims” pertaining to cryotherapy’s potential when it comes to treating asthma, Alzheimer’s, anxiety, chronic pain, depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, migraines, MS, osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, or facilitating weight loss.

What the Studies Say

Although cryotherapy might be the latest trend in the health and wellness field, peer-reviewed studies on the treatment aren’t as enthusiastic. So far, there isn’t a whole lot of strong evidence that cryotherapy is beneficial for everyone. For example, the cryotherapy article published in JSM explains that cold therapy does have benefits for improving muscle recovery and reducing soreness, but a simple ice pack or cold-water bath is far more affordable and accessible and could be just as effective, if not more so. Cryotherapy costs between $60 and $100 a session, according to a recent piece by Groupon’s editorial team, whereas even a nice ice pack runs under $12 and can be used over and over again. Studies have found, however, that whole-body cryotherapy can be helpful in reducing the pain experienced by individual with certain medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and acute low back pain.

Who should use cryotherapy?

Lovell uses cryotherapy every single day, which I, for one, have trouble understanding—maybe because I live in Michigan and the thought of voluntarily signing up to be cold any more than I already am most days of the year seems like torture. Regardless of my aversion to cold, though, Lovell maintains that almost everyone can benefit from the therapy. “I have been most surprised at how quickly cryotherapy works for people,” she says. Lovell claims that since beginning her practice of using cryotherapy daily, she has more energy and stamina, especially while exercising. She says she no longer gets sore after workouts and has been able to achieve some impressive personal records in both lifting and cardio, which she attributes to cryotherapy boosting her muscle recovery. And if that’s not enough, she also says she sleeps better, averaging eight to ten hours a night (um, am I dreaming?) and has noticed that her anxiety and chronic migraines have also decreased. “There is an instant relief for a lot of chronic pain and suffering,” she notes. “Lots of tears of joy and hugs from clients who suffer from chronic pain feeling some relief for the first time in a long time. A lot of people are skeptical at how standing in a cold chamber for two to three minutes could have so many benefits. I was skeptical at first as well. I am just an average young woman. I did not think I needed fixing by cryotherapy, but it has changed my life. I have seen so many people feel the same way.”   

Risks of Cryotherapy

While it may sound like we should all be taking a daily jaunt into the sub-zero freezing chambers, as with most health trends, what sounds too good to be true may very well be. The FDA’s warning about WBC includes a statement from one of the Administration’s scientific reviewers, Anna Ghambaryan, MD, PhD, who said, “Potential hazards include asphyxiation, especially when liquid nitrogen is used for cooling.” The FDA also warns that because of the extreme temperatures that define it, cryotherapy poses a risk of frostbite, burns, and eye injury. Lovell maintains that WBC is very well tolerated and has minimal risks, but shares that the therapy can cause fluctuations in blood pressure by up to 10 points systolically during the procedure, which reverses when it’s finished, posing a risk for people with high blood pressure, who are not candidates for the therapy. Anyone with following conditions, some of which the JSM article identifies as contraindications, should not receive cryotherapy:

  • Pregnancy
  • Hypertension
  • Coronary disease
  • Acute or recent myocardial infarction
  • Unstable angina pectoris
  • Arrhythmia
  • Symptomatic cardiovascular disease
  • Cardiac pacemaker
  • Peripheral arterial occlusive disease
  • Venous thrombosis
  • Acute or recent cerebrovascular accident
  • Uncontrolled seizures
  • Fever
  • Tumor disease
  • Bleeding disorders
  • Open wounds
  • Circulatory disorders
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon
  • Cold allergies
  • Obstruction of the bronchus caused by cold

Also, a serious word of warning: DIY cryotherapy is never an option you should consider. Unfortunately, one woman who tried to use cryotherapy after-hours on her own lost her life. The same New York Times piece that chronicles her story also touches on injuries sustained by people who wore wet gloves or sweaty socks into cryo chambers. If you do choose to visit a cryotherapy treatment center, be sure to look into the center’s history and ask about safety protocols and procedures, including verifying if an attendant will be present during the treatment and available to help if a problem arises. In the U.S., there are no cryotherapy treatment centers approved any by governing body, so the FDA recommends talking to your doctor before getting the treatment if you do decide it’s something you want to try. And if you’re looking for a much cheaper form of cryotherapy, feel free to come visit me in Michigan around January—a quick walk around the block in winter is still giving me all the cold air I need.