Many athletes think that getting into an ice bath following a hard workout might help them recover quicker, and as a result, many people are getting into cryotherapy.
It is getting so popular that I receive around two Groupon messages a day offering me discounts to try it out.
Cryotherapy seems to make sense because we have been told for a long time that if we are injured the first thing we should do is put ice on the injury.
But is taking a cryogenic plunge the right thing to do?
First, let’s look at the claim it speeds up recovery.
In 2000, German scientists looked at “Whole Body Cold Therapy” to help people with rheumatoid diseases.
The hope was to cut down the level of pain without adding drugs. And the result was good.
It did decrease pain…for around 90 minutes. The effect decreased as people got used to the treatments.
The plus side of the treatment was the reduction in pain for 90 minutes gave people an edge in doing other actives which allowed them to become more mobile.
In 2010, Sports Medicine published a similar study that was conducted on athletes to see if it promoted healing.
And while the initial treatment seemed to shock the system and produce some pain relief the effect was short lived as the body adapted to the shock.
There was also no evidence that the treatment caused any healing functions.
Jumping into ice water will decrease strength before exercising. So, this can’t be recommended as a pre-workout regimen.
Scientists have tried hot/cold therapy to see if that could improve recovery from exercise, but the results were minuscule.
Sports scientists say that according to the known evidence, the only ways to enhance recovery are:
- Sufficient rest to allow for natural recovery to occur
- Gentle stretching that helps the muscle to recover faster
- A necessary cool-down period versus stopping immediately and abruptly
- A Proper balanced diet
- Adequate fluid replacement
- Proper massage
The use of hot and cold therapies does not have any evidence to back its use to speed recovery, and pain relief for the sore athlete is temporary at best.
What other claims does cryotherapy offer? They claim that their therapy will help with frozen shoulders, depression, weight loss. increase aerobic capacity, low back pain, and a host of other ailments.
Most of the evidence cited for cryotherapy are studies based on what can be done with ice packs, but the claim is that whole body cryotherapy is better because the temperatures are better controlled and can affect the whole body.
Unfortunately, there is not much direct evidence for their claims.
Is there a downside?
According to the American Academy of Dermatological (AAD), yes there is. It might do significant damage to your largest organ…your skin.
Everything from frostbite, frozen limbs and rashes have been reported because of cryotherapy sessions.
American sprinter and 2004 Olympic champion Justin Gatlin developed frostbite on both feet during a cryotherapy session, according to ESPN.
A lady in Dallas went to one of the centers and sued them because her arm was flash frozen, resulting in excruciating blisters.
At Thanksgiving the next day, her family urged her to go to the hospital, where she was diagnosed and treated for third-degree burns.
But the worse may come from deep cold’s effect on deeper layers of your skin. The AAD reports:
“After having 8 Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) sessions within 2 weeks at a local gym, a 47-year-old man developed a rash. It started on his lower legs and spread to his thighs, belly, and arms. As the rash spread, it became somewhat itchy and painful.
Feeling very concerned, he saw a dermatologist and was diagnosed with cold panniculitis (pah-nick-you-lie-tis). This occurs when cold injures the deepest layer of skin — the fatty tissue.
People who develop cold panniculitis often have a rash of:
- Tiny, hard bumps
- Raised and scaly patches
- Deep lumps in their skin
To get rid of this rash, you must stop injuring your skin. This allows the skin to heal on its own. When this man stopped WBC, it took several weeks for his skin to heal.
As the rash fades, some people see darker (or lighter) patches of skin where the rash once was. These patches can last for months before clearing.”
In short, there is very little evidence that shows that cryotherapy provides any more than short term relief and may result in some unexpected damage that might take months to recover from.