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What is Cryotherapy? Is it Safe? Does it Work?

While physicians have been using targeted forms of cryotherapy for years in localized treatment for things like warts or cancer cell removal, celebrities and sports stars have started embracing a new trend: “whole-body” cryotherapy spas.

At these spas, which have been growing in number across the U.S. in the last few years, a person will sit or stand in a booth cooled to subzero temperatures for a few minutes. Supposedly, there are mental and physical health benefits. But is it safe?

Since the practice is still new, the health benefits have not been proven in large-scale scientific studies. Before you put yourself on ice, read on to learn more about cryotherapy.

What is cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy, or cryogenic therapy, is any form of treatment using freezing or near-freezing temperatures. This can include cryosurgery, or cryoablation, where liquid nitrogen is applied locally to destroy abnormal cells (such as tumors or cancerous cells). Small-scale cryotherapy can include ice bath immersion or cryotherapy facials.

Whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) involves sitting or standing in a “cryochamber” for two to five minutes. During this process, a person will expose his or her body to liquid nitrogen in subzero temperatures, typically between -100 and -140 degrees Celsius. Patients are required to wear minimal clothing in the chamber, which can only include things like socks, gloves, approved underwear and possibly a headband and a mask to protect the ears, nose and mouth.

When evaluating the potential benefits of WBC, it is important to remember it is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and has not been approved or cleared by the FDA as a safe or effective treatment of any medical conditions. In fact, the FDA has an entire webpage dedicated to informing readers that it has found little evidence supporting the safety or effectiveness of WBC.

Potential benefits of cryotherapy

Advocates for cryotherapy cite a variety of health benefits, many relying on claims of reduced inflammation. Scientific studies that demonstrate actual effectiveness are sparse as testing is still in the early stages and almost all benefits are currently theoretical.

Pain relief and muscle recovery are the primary reasons people try cryotherapy, since WBC could potentially be a quicker solution to problems solved by ice packs or ice baths. In 2000, a small study did show that WBC can provide short-term relief from pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis. A 2014 review of several studies determined that WBC has a small impact on pain relief and muscle recovery – with results comparable to cold-water immersion or local ice pack application.

It has been hypothesized that cryotherapy could prevent dementia by reducing inflammation associated with cognitive decline or impairment, but this theory requires more research and testing.

The same hypothesis of reduced inflammation has led to theories of WBC treating mental health conditions. A 2008 study of 60 outpatients found evidence that WBC could be a short-term treatment for depression and anxiety. WBC advocates with mental health conditions have claimed to feel a euphoria upon exiting a cryochamber, but there is not enough evidence to support long-term benefits or draw concrete conclusions.

Others believe WBC can support weight loss by using cold temperatures to force the body to work harder to stay warm. The theory is that the increased effort will boost metabolism, but a 2016 study found no significant evidence of body composition change after 10 sessions of WBC. There are more effective and safer ways to lose weight, including changing eating habits and exercising.

Cryotherapy facials conducted with a cryotherapy wand are increasing in popularity. While a formal study has not been conducted, proponents claim cryofacials can shrink pores, freeze off dead skin cells, rejuvenate skin and reduce redness.

Safety and risks

Before trying any form of cryotherapy, speak to your doctor. You should not try cryotherapy if you have a pacemaker, a history of high blood pressure, stroke, severe hypertension, seizures, a high risk of infection, claustrophobia or are pregnant. Certain conditions may worsen with WBC.

Undergoing a cryotherapy treatment for more than a few minutes can be fatal. Never practice WBC without supervision or sleep in a cryotherapy chamber. Each session should be timed and monitored for safety.

WBC has been cited to cause cases of cold panniculitis, a rash caused by the cold injuring fatty tissue, and frostbite. Frostbite occurs when the skin, and occasionally the tissues beneath the skin, freeze – potentially leading to permanent damage.

The bottom line

Anecdotal evidence from small studies shows potential for cryotherapy to produce health benefits, but research is still in the early stages. While cryosurgery is deemed safe and effective for certain medical treatments (such as wart or cancer cell removal), there is currently no concrete evidence to support the many claims made by whole-body cryotherapy or cryofacial centers.

If you’re considering cryotherapy, speak to your doctor to determine if it is a safe option for you. INTEGRIS primary care providers are ready to become your advocates and partners in your wellness journey.

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