Cold therapy proponents assert that by rapidly cooling your body, they can reduce pain, speed up muscle recovery, and even aid in weight loss. Here’s what the research and experts have to say about it.

Cryotherapy, a type of cold therapy, has grown in popularity in recent years. Many professional athletes and famous people, including NFL teams, according to the Tampa Bay Times, and Jennifer Aniston, according to Shape, have admitted to using super-cooling techniques on their bodies for therapeutic purposes.

Cold water therapy, such as ice baths and chilled plunges, is a popular form of cold therapy, as is whole-body cryotherapy (WBC), which uses air rather than water to achieve potentially therapeutic results. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, WBC involves brief bouts in a small chamber (also known as a cryochamber) that has been cooled to temperatures ranging from minus 200 to minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit (FDA).

Proponents claim that these cold therapies can relieve chronic pain, accelerate muscle recovery, promote weight loss, alleviate depression, and other benefits.

But how do you tell what’s true and what’s not?

“When it comes to cryotherapy, it’s fairly safe to say that anecdotal evidence far outnumbers research right now,” says researcher Shawn Arent, PhD, CSCS, professor and chair of exercise science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina.

Nonetheless, he adds, many people report positive experiences with cryotherapy, implying that there may be something to it.

Continue reading to learn how cryotherapy can benefit your overall health and wellness.

Potential Advantages of Therapeutic Cryotherapy

May Improve Muscle Recovery Following Exercise

Cryotherapy is frequently used to accelerate muscle recovery after exercise.

To understand why, we must first comprehend what happens to the body when it is chilled and reheated. First, your body reacts to cold temperatures by constricting your blood vessels (a process known as vasoconstriction), directing all of your blood to your organs. When this happens, your blood receives more oxygen and nutrients, according to Gregg Larivee, D.C., founder and CEO of Integrated Medical Center in Jupiter, Florida.

When you get out of the cold and your body warms up again, your blood vessels dilate (expand), sending oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood back to your tissues. Dr. Larivee explains that increased blood flow flushes out inflammation and toxins accumulated during your workout, assisting in the acceleration of recovery.

Dr. Arent also warns that cryotherapy may limit your muscles’ ability to adapt to resistance training. “[Cryotherapy] appears to reduce muscle protein synthesis, [the process that drives exercise responses], so strength gains are not as significant,” he says.

Possibility of Improving Sleep

According to Arent, current evidence suggests that cryotherapy may aid in sleep.

The aforementioned Chinese study in middle- and long-distance runners, for example, discovered that WBC not only reduced muscle damage and inflammation after exercise, but also that subjects reported better sleep quality after WBC than after other forms of cryotherapy.

For example, a Chinese study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in February 2021 discovered that WBC reduced muscle damage and inflammation in middle- and long-distance runners better than other types of cryotherapy and no cryotherapy (control). Because the study was small (only 12 runners), it’s difficult to say how these findings might apply to larger populations.

However, previous research has found that using WBC post-exercise reduces muscle pain and inflammation, according to a previous opinion paper. However, the authors of a previous systematic review concluded that there is insufficient evidence to determine whether WBC improves recovery after exercise more than rest.

Furthermore, according to a study published in March 2019 in BMC Research Notes, soccer players moved less during the night (as measured by wrist devices) and slept better after three minutes of partial-body cryotherapy (PBC) than after shorter sessions.

(PBC is similar to WBC, with the exception that your head and neck are outside the cryochamber.) A study published in the European Journal of Sport Science in July 2019 reveals similar results: Active men who received WBC following an evening workout tossed and turned less and slept better than those who did not.

Cryotherapy may help us sleep by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, according to researchers. According to the Cleveland Clinic, this is the “rest and digest” side of the autonomic (or “automatic”) nervous system, which takes over managing your bodily functions when we feel calm and safe. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, we are more relaxed.

More research is needed, however, to determine whether and how cryotherapy can improve sleep in nonathletic populations, and larger studies are required to fully understand the relationship between cold therapy and sleep quality.

It has the potential to alleviate chronic pain.

Cryotherapy can help with chronic pain in a variety of ways.

For starters, cold is a well-known short-term analgesic (or pain reliever). Consider applying an ice pack to a sprained ankle. According to a review published in Pain and Therapy in December 2020, scientists believe cold works by slowing nerve transmission (when a nerve fires a signal to the brain) in pain cells

According to a research paper published in Nature Medicine in December 2019, cryotherapy may also reduce pain by lowering inflammation, which is a feature of inflammatory-related chronic pain conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis (an inflammatory disease of the spine).

Indeed, the authors of the 2020 review in Pain and Therapy concluded that cryotherapy could be a simple, low-risk option for managing chronic pain after reviewing 25 studies. Pain associated with chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, in particular.

The two cryotherapy methods discovered to provide pain relief were WBC and ice application. However, more research on the long-term effects of cryotherapy on chronic pain is required, as are more standardized treatment protocols.

Some Chronic Skin Conditions May Be Treated

WBC may also aid in the reduction of inflammation and itching in people suffering from atopic dermatitis (eczema), a chronic skin condition characterized by dry, inflamed skin. 16 adults with mild to moderate atopic dermatitis participated in a small study that involved WBC at -166 degrees F for one to three minutes, three times per week for a month. Although the study sample was too small to draw meaningful conclusions, most patients’ atopic dermatitis symptoms improved.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association currently discourages the use of WBC as a treatment for atopic dermatitis.

It Could Help You Lose Weight

Spending time outside in the cold may increase your metabolism as your body works to keep warm. In theory, increasing your calorie burn may allow you to create the calorie deficit required to lose weight.

In a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in April 2021, 16 control lean women and 15 obese women underwent PBC for 150 minutes per day for five days at -202 degrees F.

The lean women burned 8.2 percent more calories at rest (known as resting energy expenditure, or REE) by the end of the study, while the obese women burned 5.5 percent more calories at rest than they did on day one.

While these findings are intriguing, we don’t know how long these changes in REE would last or whether they would result in weight loss, and because this study was so small, more research in larger populations is required.

Medical Cryotherapy Applications and Health Advantages

Some forms of cryotherapy, such as cryoablation or cryosurgery (a surgical procedure involving extreme cold), are used medically by surgeons and other types of certified healthcare providers, and for specific procedures aimed at treating specific conditions.

A dermatologist, for example, may use cryoablation to treat abnormal tissue, and some surgeons may use it to destroy certain cancers. It’s important to note that cryoablation is not the same as the healing and supportive approaches discussed above. That being said, there are two medical advantages to using cryotherapy techniques in a clinical setting:

Cancer Treatment

According to the Cleveland Clinic, cryotherapy is a common treatment method for some cancers, including prostate and liver cancer. Cryoablation is a therapy that involves freezing tumor cells inside the body. The tumor cells can’t survive extreme cold, and die as a result, according to a past research article.

Cryoablation is a non-surgical procedure. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the doctor inserts a cryoprobe through a small incision in the skin and sprays the cold (a substance such as liquid nitrogen or argon gas) with a spraying device.

According to the National Cancer Institute, cryoablation can only be used to treat tumors that can be seen through imaging tests, such as mammograms (NCI). Furthermore, according to the NCI, doctors are still unsure how cryoablation might control cancer or impact life expectancy in the long run.

Take Care of Abnormal Skin Tissues

According to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, cryotherapy is also used to treat benign (non-cancerous), precancerous, or superficially cancerous skin cancer. According to the Cleveland Clinic, freezing specific areas of the skin causes it to blister and peel off, allowing new, healthy skin to grow in its place.