Cryotherapy: What is It & Should You Try It?

Article posted in: Lifestyle

Ice baths and cold showers have long been used by athletes to recover more quickly from hard training or competition, but the arms race for better, faster, stronger recovery has gone sci-fi: For the past five years of so, pro athletes from the NBA, NFL and even high-level Olympians have been stepping—mostly naked—into metal cylinders where they’re surrounded by white smoke as the air around them is cooled to more than 100 degrees below zero.

It’s called whole-body cryotherapy, and it’s not just professional athletes who are trying it: Suburbanites have begun stripping to their skivvies for these super-cold sessions to experience benefits that purport to relieve arthritis pain, speed workout recovery and help with fibromyalgia.

When you go for a cryotherapy session, you’ll strip down to your underwear and remove any metal jewelry from your body, as the metal can freeze and burn your skin. You’ll put on a pair of gloves and socks and step into a shower-like cylinder where vaporized liquid nitrogen shoots at you from all directions, steaming all around. Temperatures in the chamber can reach -230 degrees and colder. You’ll be encouraged to move a little as the gas is blown on you for three to six minutes.

Some lovers of cryotheraphy say the experience is exhilarating, filling them with energy. Others say it lessens pain and speeds recovery, while still more suggest it can help speed fat and weight loss.

Sessions can cost $50 and up, though some centers have first-time discounts in the $25 range, and group coupons from sites like LivingSocial can be found with cheaper deals. But you aren’t supposed to just go once: One center recommends 10 sessions or more for fibromyalgia pain, 20 sessions or more for arthritis and 30 sessions or more for weight loss effects. Even with multi-session discounts, that could cost upwards of $1000.

There’s no arguing with someone who says it’s exhilarating—that’s subjective—but when it comes to the recovery stuff, there’s not a ton of positive research backing cryotherapy up. A 2015 review of research, mostly conducted on males, found that there was “insufficient evidence” to show that whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) helped alleviate post-workout muscle soreness in a statistically significant way. Another study, from 2013, found that it did help high-level athletes, but only when they were recovering from sprint workouts, not from endurance work. So if you’re a half-marathon runner or aspiring distance athlete, you may not get the benefits you’re after.

WBC does seem to work for arthritis patients: A 2015 study found that WBC gave similar results in arthritis pain relief and disease symptoms when compared with traditional physical therapy. And a 2013 study found that it did help fibromyalgia patients. If you’ve got either of these conditions, though, you’d want to talk to your doctor before pursuing an alternative pain management solution like WBC.

There also may something to the weight loss claims: A 2014 study from the journal Cell Metabolism found that shivering for 10 to 15 minutes released the same amount of a fat-burning hormone as is released in an hour of exercise. The hormone, called irisin, turns white fat cells, which store up to 300 calories of energy, into so-called “brown fat,” a fat type associated with keeping warm that can burn up to 300 calories of energy per day. But you can do this without forking over $50, as the shivering doesn’t need to be at -100 degrees: Study participants shivered at 57 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, much warmer than what the WBC chamber puts you through—and a temp that should allow you to shiver for longer.

For athletes looking for recovery benefits, some scientists say that the potential adverse risks outweigh the clinical benefits until further research can be conducted. That hasn’t stopped lots of top athletes from using it to try to get an edge, of course. Athletes who love WBC say it delivers all the benefits of an ice bath, but faster, colder and with less getting wet. And all that is true: You stay dry, only stand in the chamber for a few minutes, and the super-cooled air is much colder than water. But you can get all those same benefits with a much faster, cheaper alternative that also keeps you dry: Riding a bike. A 2016 study from the Journal of Physiology found that doing just 10 easy minutes on a stationary bike after a workout had the same recovery effect as a 10-minute ice bath. So unless you love the cold, save your money and stick with active recovery. Proven and effective weight loss programs like South Beach Diet are a safe bet too.