The Best New Treatment For Pain & Inflammation Is Really, Really Cool

The Best New Treatment For Pain & Inflammation Is Really, Really Cool Hero Image
Photo: Meg Hicks / mbg Creative

As mbg’s associate health editor, Gretchen has become the go-to person for any (and every) health question in our office. Her strategy is simple: approach modern health conundrums using a combination of ancient wisdom and current research. In Modern Medicine, Gretchen will deconstruct the latest wellness trends by evaluating research and consulting leading integrative health experts to tell you what’s brilliant—and what’s bogus. 

There's a new type of therapy on the wellness scene, and it's not for the faint of heart. Whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) is a treatment that involves short exposures to subzero temperatures (as low as negative 300 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact) for about two to five minutes. Celebrities from Jennifer Aniston to Floyd Mayweather have jumped on the cryotherapy wagon. Reportedly, Christiano Ronaldo even bought a chamber to keep in his house—and they all swear by it for improving skin health, aiding with weight loss and pain relief, and boosting athletic performance and energy levels.

But how can standing in a freezing chamber promote health? And is it even safe to expose your body to those temperatures? We know you have a lot of questions—and we do too! That's why we consulted some of our leading integrative medicine doctors, pain experts, and cryotherapy insiders to get you all the information you need.

What is cryotherapy and how does it work?

Cryo comes from the Greek word krous, which means "icy" or "cold." And despite its current fame in the wellness world, cryotherapy has actually been around for centuries. Have you ever put an ice pack on you knee after a fall? Well then, congrats! You’ve already done cryotherapy—technically. We've known for years that icing an injury can help reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation, so whole-body cryotherapy just takes this concept to a new level.

Naturally, the first question many of us have is "Does it hurt?" Exposing your body to subzero temperatures does seem like a pretty unbearable experience, but people say it’s actually more tolerable than an ice bath since the air is dry instead of wet—which makes it feel more like standing in front of a freezer on a hot day. Whole-body cryotherapy is usually delivered in one of three ways: The first is a room filled with air cooled by liquid nitrogen (cryochamber), the second is an open-topped chamber (cryosauna), and the third is a device that delivers localized cryotherapy to particular areas, for example, an ankle or a wrist.

Why is it so popular?

Whole-body cryotherapy was originally developed by a doctor in Japan to help his arthritis patients who were suffering from pain and inflammation in their joints. From these modest roots cryotherapy took off and seems to have developed into a cure-all treatment, with many claiming it can help with anything from muscle soreness, cellulite, and asthma to low libido, insomnia, and anxiety. If your alarm bells are ringing after reading that, we get it. So were ours—it just doesn't seem likely (or possible) that one treatment could do all that.

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To narrow it down, we talked to Lance Mald, the CMO of Kryogenesis—a popular facility in Manhattan—who says that cryotherapy is far from a miracle cure-all treatment. He explains that the majority of people try it out for one of three reasons: A large portion of them are simply curious about the trendiness of it, others are athletes looking for a way to speed recovery, and the third bucket is filled with people suffering from chronic pain. According to Mald, the clients who stick around are the athletes and the chronic pain sufferers because although cryo won't cure pain, many clients do say it provides them with a lot of relief.

What are the real benefits of cryotherapy?

Dr. Joe Tatta, a chiropractic doctor and author of the book Heal Your Pain Now, explains that "Whole-body cryotherapy is a treatment that has been used for decades in sports medicine. It is known for its anti-inflammatory, anti-analgesic, and antioxidant effects to decrease inflammation, speed recovery, and prevent excessive exercise-induced inflammation and soreness." And so it seems that—according to the experts—the real benefits of cryotherapy have to do with pain, inflammation, and recovery after a workout or injury.

Dr. Tatta also mentions that cryotherapy, much like infrared sauna therapy, can be used to counteract the deleterious effects of a sedentary life. "For those who are inactive or can’t move due to an injury, exposure to cryotherapy mimics exercise since it affects muscle physiology in an exercise-like fashion, thus opening another possible window of therapeutic strategies for metabolic diseases and possibly autoimmune disease." He often recommends cryotherapy as part of a physical rehabilitation program as an adjunct to optimizing nutrition and movement.

What is a session really like? Will it hurt?

If you're curious about cryotherapy, there are a few things to know before you try it out. First, it's not recommended for people with chronic health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, skin infections, or those that are pregnant. Also, if you get claustrophobic, it's probably not for you since you'll be in a small enclosed space. The session will last about 15 minutes. First, they'll give you a questionnaire and take your blood pressure to make sure you're a good candidate, and next, you'll strip down to your underwear and be given gloves and socks to protect your extremities.

So does it hurt? Mald says it depends on the client and how well they tolerate the cold, but many patients use the time to relax and often describe the sensation more as a tingling in their legs. And while it's hard to imagine relaxing in a freezing cold ice chamber, it is a dry cold so it won't feel the same as jumping in cold water. According to Mald, you'd have to sit in an ice bath for up to an hour to get the benefits of a three-minute cryotherapy session.

What does the research say about cryotherapy?

Most of the available research on cryotherapy focuses on pain and inflammation, but unfortunately even that is pretty limited. A 2012 review didn’t find any real evidence that cold therapy reduces pain or muscle soreness—despite the fact that many athletes swear by it for a speedy recovery. A 2015 Cochrane review of current research on cryotherapy also came to a similar conclusion: "There is insufficient evidence to determine whether whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) reduces self-reported muscle soreness or improves subjective recovery after exercise compared with passive rest or no WBC... Further high-quality, well-reported research in this area is required and must provide detailed reporting of adverse events."

Other research tested WBC against other types of cryotherapy—like ice baths or local ice-pack applications—and concluded that until research is available there's no way to definitively say that WBC is more effective than other less expensive options. In other words, it's unclear if whole-body cryotherapy actually works for pain and recovery, and you definitely won't find any research on whether or not it banishes cellulite or will supercharge your sex drive, which are some of the other benefits touted by cryotherapy facilities. Dr. Amy Shah, a functional medicine expert and mbg class instructor says she is not yet recommending cryotherapy over ice baths and other forms of cold therapy until more research is out.

Is it really safe to expose my body to these temperatures?

The death of a 24-year-old woman in Nevada—who entered a cryotherapy chamber after work only to be found the next day by her co-workers—raised a lot of questions about the safety of cryotherapy and how it's being regulated. The consensus seems to be that cryotherapy is safe as long as the exposure is only for a few minutes—but any longer could be very dangerous. It is not an approved medical treatment by the FDA, and there have been a few lawsuits filed against cryotherapy facilities involving frostbite and burns. One woman, for example, claims she was given wet gloves to wear, which burned her arms when they froze. And this can happen; it's imperative that you're completely dry before you step in or you can risk cold-related injuries. Cryotherapy is not recommended for people with chronic health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, skin infections, or those who are pregnant. Also, if you get claustrophobic, it's probably not for you.

So generally speaking, it seems that most healthy bodies can handle exposures to such extreme cold—as long as it's only for a few minutes and as long as the person is healthy. That being said, there are risks involved, which makes you wonder why this therapy is still unregulated on both the state and federal levels. Mald did mention that there are a couple of companies looking to form an organization that would monitor the way these devices are used—and we hope this comes to fruition! According to Dr. Shah, "If you are trying everything else to heal and improve inflammation and you want to add this on—as long as they are making sure you are only in there for two to three minutes and that your head and neck are outside of the tank—it shouldn't be a bad thing."

What should I know before I go?

If you've gotten this far and are thinking about trying it out, there are a few things to keep in mind. For starters, we love that Kryogenesis is affiliated with an orthopedic surgeon—so that might be something to look for. A good facility will do a health evaluation and take your blood pressure beforehand, but we would also recommend talking to your own doctor before you sign up. Any location that spouts cryotherapy as a miracle cure for all your woes is best avoided since, as we now know, the science just doesn't support those claims yet.

Still not sure if it's right for you? We get it, even after taking in all this information, it can still be hard to decide. If you're a high-performance athlete or suffering from chronic pain or inflammation, cryotherapy might be a worthy experiment. If you're looking for a weight-loss aid or cellulite-busting therapy, you might want to focus your efforts elsewhere—at least until more research on the safety and efficacy is available.

Have questions about other health and wellness trends? In previous versions of Modern Medicine, our health editor tackled birth control apps, collagen supplements, and skin probiotics.


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