Recovery is an integral part of any workout program. And like workout programs, there always seems to be a new method that makes recovery faster, easier, or more convenient.
Now, the talk of the gym is turning to cryotherapy.
In short, cryotherapy involves stepping into a full-body chamber that sends temperatures plummeting to unimaginable lows for a few minutes. Imagine jumping into an ice-cold pool, and then making it about three times as cold. It's a shock to the system—which is exactly the goal.
Despite the apparent intensity, though, cryotherapy has attracted a lengthy list of athletes and celebrities—among them LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Floyd Mayweather, Jr.—who swear by it for optimal muscle recovery and energy. (Cristiano Ronaldo loves the treatment so much that he reportedly had a chamber installed in his home.)
So it's no surprise, then, that cryotherapy has attracted average Joes and weekend warriors alike. But is cryotherapy practical for you? And what exactly does it do to your body, anyway? We got the scoop on the treatment so you can decide whether this futuristic recovery method is right for you.
What is cryotherapy, and how does it work?
The treatment is straightforward: You step into a cryochamber that drops to a super-low temperature with the help of liquid nitrogen. How low does the temperature drop? Somewhere around -120° C (-184° F), says Eduardo Bohorquez, president and chairman at KryoLife. Once the temperature drops, you remain in the chamber for about three minutes and then step out.
Scientifically, “it’s a very concentrated, localized cold treatment modality that is as effective as an ice bath and more comfortable to apply than immersing oneself in a traditional ice bath,” says Timothy Miller, M.D., the director of the Endurance Medicine Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “It is an effective method for decreasing and replenishing muscles and other soft tissues following hard workouts.”
Put simply: Cryotherapy, in theory, is like the bigger, colder version of an ice bath. Inside the chamber, the dry cold penetrates the skin and causes the body's temperature sensors to send a signal to the brain. This triggers a “fight or flight” response, according to Bohorquez. When the body senses the extreme cold, blood flows into the torso to insulate and protect the vital organs. After the treatment, oxygenated blood rushes to the extremities and helps with healing.
In theory, this makes sense, explains Kirk Campbell, M.D., a sports medicine surgeon at NYU’s Langone Medical Center. However, the treatment has not been clinically studied enough to firmly back these claims. “The science is lacking because not many clinical studies have been done,” Campbell says. “So although we can’t endorse it from a medical standpoint, many athletes swear by the treatment, saying they feel energized and recover faster as a result of using a cryochamber.”
The reported benefits of cryotherapy
As the name suggests, whole-body cryotherapy is designed to benefit the entire body. Those who advocate for the treatment claim to feel an increase in endorphins, positive mood change, stress reduction, muscle recovery, and a reduction in inflammation after treatment, Bohorquez says. Miller says cryotherapy has also been shown to decrease pain from headaches and decrease their duration.
Although still rare in America, cryotherapy has been used since the 1970s in Japan to treat rheumatoid arthritis, according to Campbell. However, those who suffer from autoimmune diseases, severe joint pain, or even depression have claimed that cryotherapy helped with their symptoms.
“Proving that people feel a certain way following treatment is difficult,” Campbell says, “but a release of endorphins could theoretically cause people to feel euphoric once the treatment is over.”
In addition to the effects that people claim to feel immediately after the treatment, athletes claim that it improves their performance and speeds up muscle recovery. Scientific studies have shown that any cold therapy, including whole-body cryotherapy, has a positive effect on soft tissues and decreases muscle soreness, according to Miller.
Is cryotherapy safe?
For most people, the risks are relatively low, according to Campbell. However, he stresses the importance of speaking with a medical professional beforehand to ensure that it’s a safe option for you. This is extremely important because, unsurprisingly, many medical conditions would put your safety at risk during cryotherapy.
Both doctors offered lists of health issues that would bar someone from cryotherapy, including heart problems, vascular issues, neurologic conditions that cause arterial constriction, cold sensitivity such as Raynaud’s disease, seizure disorders, and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. In these cases, cryotherapy treatment could cause blood vessels to constrict enough to cause frostbite or tissue necrosis (aka cell death), says Miller.
Miller adds that overuse of the treatment can also cause cold burns, frostbite, infections, loss of fingers or toes or nerve damage, and permanent numbness or tingling. However, this also goes for any cold therapy, which is why even ice packs feature a frostbite warning.
Yes, the thought of frostbite or losing a digit or two is absolutely terrifying, but the good news is that these complications are very rare as long as you check with your doctor first and ensure that you’re dry before entering the chamber. The spa should offer you a dry robe, a towel, and socks to minimize any risks.
The chamber is dry and doesn’t have an air current, so it won’t feel as cold as you’d expect. At the most, you may get a pins-and-needles feeling in your extremities. If you do feel anything more, you should let a technician know and stop immediately. At spas like KryoLife, a technician is constantly speaking with the client throughout treatment to make sure that it’s going well and the client is comfortable. If the client is uncomfortable, the technician stops the treatment, Bohorquez says.
Is cryotherapy worth it?
There are many reported benefits to cryotherapy treatments, but they come at a higher cost than the average ice bath. Just one whole-body cryotherapy session will cost up to $100, depending on the location (at KryoLife, whole-body treatment starts at $55).
If the money isn’t a problem or you’re a professional athlete with cryochambers at your disposal, the treatment is theoretically a quick, convenient, and top-of-the-line way to speed up recovery with minimal discomfort.
For those who aren’t, there are definitely more affordable ways to benefit from cold therapy, which is the root of the treatment. “Compare the price of cryotherapy to the price of a bag of ice,” Campbell says. While it may take a little bit longer, it’s also a tried-and-true method of reducing inflammation, whereas cryotherapy is newer and not approved by the FDA, despite the fact that it’s endorsed by elite athletes.