Cryotherapy: The Risks, Benefits & Facts Everyone Should Know

Photo by Carey Shaw

Cryotherapy sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. It doesn't have anything to do with freezing yourself to be thawed out in the future (that's cryogenics), but some of the alleged benefits of cryotherapy really do seem like futuristic magic.

Broadly speaking, cryotherapy is any kind of body cooling for therapeutic purposes. The kind most people are referring to when they talk about cryotherapy is whole-body cryotherapy (WBC), which involves brief exposures to temperatures below -100 degrees Celsius in a cryotherapy chamber. Cryotherapy can also refer to treatments that target specific parts of the body, like cryotherapy facials, which focus, obviously, on the face, or medical cryotherapy, which is used by doctors to freeze off warts or cancerous cells.

If you can stand the subzero temperatures, many believe that cryotherapy has a wide range of benefits, from helping athletes recover after intense workouts to burning calories and reducing cellulite. If the incredible claims made by cryotherapy believers are true, it could truly prove to be a miracle therapy. Of course, research into cryotherapy is in its earliest stages, so many of the treatment's supposed benefits are mostly theoretical at this point. If, at any point, you decide to try cryotherapy, talk to your doctor first—especially if you have known underlying circulation issues, as well as other pre-existing medical conditions, many of which may not jibe with cryotherapy.

Here's what you need to know about cryotherapy, which of its benefits have been backed up by science, and which are still relying on anecdotal evidence.

Cryotherapy chamber.

If you decide to try out whole-body cryotherapy, you’ll have to step into a cryotherapy chamber. Be warned, this chamber will only reinforce the science fiction vibes of the treatment. The chamber is cooled to subzero temperatures (typically between -100 and -140 degrees Celsius) by liquid nitrogen, and patients step inside wearing almost no clothing (gloves, socks, and sometimes a headband to cover the ears and a mask to cover the nose and mouth). A whole-body cryotherapy session lasts between two and five minutes and typically costs between $50 and $75 a session.

Darshan Shah, M.D., founder of Next Health and Wellness, a spa and treatment hybrid space in Los Angeles that offers cryotherapy in addition to IV infusions, vitamin shots, and other health optimization treatments, weighed in on the effectiveness of cryotherapy. "We have known for years the benefits of cold plunge in collagen stimulation, reduction of inflammation, and production of endorphins and norepinephrine in the brain," Dr. Shah told mbg. "Cryotherapy creates the conditions for the same benefits in two and a half to three and a half minutes, without the discomfort of being in cold water. Although much research still needs to be done, we have anecdotally seen the resolution of joint pain, sleep improvement, weight loss, and collagen stimulation in the thousands of treatment sessions we have performed."

The cryotherapy trend.

Humans have been using cold to treat injuries for centuries—the origins of the treatment can be traced back at least as far as the Egyptians in 2500 BCE. By the mid-1800s, doctors were beginning to use localized forms of cryotherapy (cold packs filled with a solution of crushed ice and salt) to treat breast, cervical, and skin cancers. Modern cryotherapy techniques began to take shape in the 1960s; and by the 1970s, medical cryotherapy had become a staple of dermatological practices, where doctors use the technology, sometimes called "cryosurgery," to remove warts and some kinds of cancerous cells.

By the early 2000s, research into the uses of cryotherapy had expanded, and scientists were exploring the possibility of using cryo as a treatment for arthritis pain. The whole-body cryotherapy chambers that were developed for these treatments soon became popular among athletes, many of whom believe that cryotherapy will help reduce inflammation and enhance recovery after exercise. From there, cryo spread to mainstream use, proving popular among amateur athletes and fitness and wellness enthusiasts, in particular.

Ben Greenfield, human performance consultant, has been experimenting with cryotherapy in his own routine. "I’ve had a long history of cold water swimming with Iron Man triathlons and other races," he told mbg. "For my own personal use of cryotherapy I typically do a cold shower at the beginning or end of the day. I also do a longer cold soak for 15-20 minutes once per week; and in the summer, I will use the cool fat burner or cool gut burner vest to enhance the white adipose to brown adipose tissue conversion. Finally, I sleep in a room with a cold temperature, and I also sleep on a Chili Pad, which circulates cold water underneath while I’m asleep. I tend to keep the house temperature slightly cooler so the body has mild cold thermogenesis throughout the day."

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Cryotherapy benefits.

Proponents of cryotherapy cite a long list of potential health benefits, but it's important to note that almost all of cryotherapy's benefits are still theoretical. There might be good science to back up the hypothesis that cryo will be beneficial for many different reasons, but research into its actual effectiveness is still new and relatively sparse.

The primary reason that many people decide to try cryotherapy (pain relief and muscle recovery) is, thankfully, the one with the most research to back it up. Cryotherapy has been shown to reduce pain for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Many athletes and fitness lovers are drawn to cryotherapy as a way of aiding recovery from exercise. A 2017 study did find that cryotherapy can help relieve pain and speed healing. However, it's worth noting that the same study found that cold-water immersion (an ice bath) is actually more effective in aiding muscle recovery than whole-body cryotherapy.

While some studies do support the idea that cryotherapy helps improve muscle recovery, not all of them do. In 2014, a review of several different studies related to cryotherapy and pain relief and muscle recovery found that, overall, it had very little impact. Basically, the jury is still out on cryo as an effective treatment for muscle pain and recovery, but at least researchers are actively studying its impact in these areas.

Photo: @YakubovAlim

Cryotherapy has also been used to treat some forms of cancer. Specifically, when it comes to cervical cancer and basal skin cell cancer, localized cryotherapy (not whole-body) can be used to kill cancer cells. Notably, cryo only kills cancer cells in the treated area, not elsewhere in the body.

Cryotherapy is being studied as a treatment for several other conditions. In 2012, researchers hypothesized that cryo might be a preventive treatment for dementia and cognitive decline because of its ability to reduce inflammation, which is associated with the conditions.

Other studies have looked into cryo as a treatment for eczema and migraines. In both cases, cryotherapy was shown to reduce, but not fully eliminate, the symptoms of the conditions.

Cryotherapy risks.

Before you try cryotherapy, especially whole-body cryotherapy, you should really consult your doctor. In general, it's recommended that you not try cryo if you have a history of stroke, high blood pressure, seizures, and infections, or if you are pregnant or have a pacemaker or claustrophobia.

While it's not a health risk, per se, there's also the risk that you'll invest lots of your hard-earned money into cryotherapy only to be disappointed with the results. Some studies suggest it doesn't actually deliver on its promises of muscle pain relief. What's more, the FDA considers claims about cryotherapy's effectiveness so dubious, it's issued a formal consumer update explaining its risks and potential ineffectiveness.

"Given a growing interest from consumers in whole-body cryotherapy, the FDA has informally reviewed the medical literature available on this subject," Aron Yustein, M.D., a medical officer in the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, explained in the consumer update. "We found very little evidence about its safety or effectiveness in treating the conditions for which it is being promoted."

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The controversy about cryotherapy and death.

While many swear by it, cryotherapy hasn't been free from controversy. Most notably, a 24-year-old woman, aesthetician Chelsea Ake-Salvacion, died while undergoing cryotherapy at the salon where she worked in Las Vegas in 2015, which called cryo's benefits and safety into question. The incident also prompted a crackdown on regulations for cryotherapy in Nevada.

Typically, cryotherapy centers don't allow employees to use the cryo chambers unsupervised—which Ake-Salvacion reportedly did. Her employer, Rejuvenice, stood by the treatment, explaining in a statement at the time, "We firmly believe in whole-body cryotherapy treatments for pain management, athletic recovery, detoxification and a variety of other ailments. Millions of treatments have been given safely all over the world for more than 20 years."

Cryotherapy for weight loss.

Some people have touted weight loss as a major benefit of cryotherapy. The logic behind cryo as a weight loss aid is solid—the theory is that lowering your temperature will force the body to work harder to maintain a healthy temperature and, therefore, will burn calories. While it's an appealing thought, a 2016 study found no real impact of cryotherapy on weight, even after 10 full sessions.

Cryotherapy for cellulite.

While there is some science to back up the idea that cryotherapy would be an effective treatment for cellulite reduction, the evidence that it actually does reduce cellulite is mostly anecdotal at this point. You can try it, and you might notice results, but there just isn't much research to back up its effectiveness across the board.

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Cryotherapy facials.

Many wellness trends seem to make their way to the beauty realm eventually, and cryotherapy is no different. In addition to undergoing whole-body cryotherapy treatments, some people are also trying out cryotherapy facials. These facials are pretty much what they sound like—freezing your face in the name of beauty. There hasn't yet been a formal study about the effectiveness of cryo facials, but anecdotally, they've been said to shrink pores, reduce redness, and generally give skin a healthy glow (allegedly by helping to exfoliate the skin and freeze off dead skin cells).

While there isn't much in the way of research into cryo facials, there is a study that suggests you might experience skin discoloration after cryotherapy treatment, particularly if you've been tanning. According to integrative dermatologist Cybele Fishman M.D., cryotherapy can have collagen-inducing effects, but there may be a more direct way to achieve your skin goals. "If you want to induce collagen, then causing a wound (like with laser or chemical peels or microneedling) will induce collagen," Dr. Fishman told mbg. "But blowing some liquid nitrogen near your face is not going to do much, and too aggressive an application can actually cause scarring. While there is a fine window where it will work like a chemical peel, taking off dead skin and stimulating collagen, I would say there is probably a more targeted treatment to better suit your needs and goals," she said.

Cryotherapy for anxiety and depression.

Stepping into a giant ice coffin might not sound like the most relaxing thing in the world (it might actually seem like one of the least relaxing things, depending on what sets off your personal anxieties), but believe it or not, researchers are also looking into the possibility that cryotherapy could be used as a treatment for anxiety and depression.

The research here is actually promising—a 2008 study found that one-third of participants reported reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression by as much as 50 percent after undergoing cryotherapy, which is significant if the results are replicable. As of now, more research is needed.

Most important takeaways about cryotherapy.

If you're considering cryotherapy, it's important to consult your doctor and make sure it's a good (and safe) fit for you. It's also important to keep in mind that research into the benefits of cryotherapy is in the early stages, and it's impossible to say if the benefits that cryotherapy centers boast are true or not. If you have the time, money, and a tolerance for extreme cold, it could be worth a try. But don't bank on it being a miracle treatment just yet.

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