People, including self-described "Iceman" Wim Hof, claim that extreme cold can improve mental and physical health and even prolong life. So what does the science say?
Research on cryotherapy is as new as is the trend for the treatment. So doctors do not fully understand all the potential benefits and risks of the process.
In this article, we look at some of the possible benefits to be had from cryotherapy healing, as well as other facts a person may need to know before they consider it.
- Cryotherapy is any treatment that involves the use of freezing or near-freezing temperatures.
- Because cryotherapy is new, some potential benefits are not yet proven.
- Cryotherapy might be a safe alternative treatment and preventative for many ailments.
- Cryotherapy can be unpleasant, particularly for people who are unaccustomed to the cold.
Safety and what to expect
Cryotherapy is relatively new, so any benefits are yet to be proven.
The most popular form of cryotherapy involves sitting in a cryotherapy booth for 3–5 minutes.
Some people undergo cryotherapy facials, which apply cold to the face only. Others use a cryotherapy wand to target specific areas, such as a painful joint.
Most people use the term cryotherapy to refer to whole-body cryotherapy.
This is non-medical treatment in a spa or similar setting.
Doctors, however, also use cryotherapy. For instance, very cold temperatures can be used to freeze off warts or cancerous cells.
Though unpleasant to begin with, cryotherapy tends to get better with each treatment, as the body adjusts to the low temperature.
It is generally safe, but it is important to talk to a doctor before trying cryotherapy.
Pregnant women, children, people with severe high blood pressure, and people with heart conditions should not try cryotherapy.
Having a cryotherapy treatment for any longer than a few minutes can be fatal.
A person must never sleep during cryotherapy, and they should time each session to ensure it is not longer than the recommended timeframe.
What are the benefits of cryotherapy?
Research may eventually undermine other purported benefits of cryotherapy. However, preliminary studies suggest that cryotherapy may offer the following benefits:
1. Pain relief and muscle healing
Cryotherapy can help with muscle pain, as well as some joint and muscle disorders, such as arthritis. It may also promote faster healing of athletic injuries.
Doctors have long recommended using ice packs on injured and painful muscles. Doing so may increase blood circulation after the ice pack is removed, promoting healing and pain relief.
A study published in 2000 found that cryotherapy offered temporary relief from the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. The research found that cryotherapy with ice packs could reduce the damaging effects of intense exercise. People who used cryotherapy also reported less pain.
Another 2017 study also supports the benefits of cryotherapy for relieving muscle pain and speeding healing. However, the study found that cold water immersion was more effective than whole-body cryotherapy.
Not all studies support the role of cryotherapy in muscle healing. A 2015 Cochrane Review looked at four studies of cryotherapy for the relief of muscle pain and found no significant benefits.
2. Weight Loss
Cryotherapy providers have suggested it can help with weight loss, but studies may suggest otherwise.
Cryotherapy alone will not cause weight loss, but it could support the process. In theory, being cold forces the body to work harder to stay warm.
Some cryotherapy providers claim that a few minutes of cold can increase metabolism all day. Eventually, they claim, people no longer feel cold because their metabolism has adjusted and increased in response to the cold temperature.
A small 2016 study found no significant changes in body composition after 10 sessions of cryotherapy.
Because cryotherapy helps with muscle pain, it could make it easier to get back to a fitness routine following an injury. This potential weight loss benefit is limited to people who cannot or will not exercise because of pain.
3. Reduced inflammation
Inflammation is one way the immune system fights infection. Sometimes the immune system becomes overly reactive. The result is chronic inflammation, which is linked to health problems, such as cancer, diabetes, depression, dementia, and arthritis.
As such, reducing inflammation could also improve overall health and reduce the risk of numerous chronic ailments.
Some studies suggest that cryotherapy can reduce inflammation. However, most research has been done on rats, so to confirm the data, more research is needed on people.
4. Preventing dementia
If cryotherapy reduces inflammation, it could also reduce the risk of developing dementia.
A 2012 paper puts forward the possibility of cryotherapy being able to reduce the inflammation and oxidative stress associated with dementia, mild cognitive impairment, and other age-related forms of cognitive decline.
5. Preventing and treating cancer
Because whole body cryotherapy might reduce inflammation, it is possible it could also lower the risk of developing cancer.
So far, there is no evidence that cryotherapy can treat cancer once the disease has developed. However, medical cryotherapy is a well-established treatment for certain forms of cancer.
A doctor might use cryotherapy to freeze off cancer cells on the skin or cervix and occasionally to remove other cancers.
6. Reducing anxiety and depression
Research findings that cryotherapy may reduce inflammation suggest that it could treat mental health conditions linked to inflammation. Some preliminary research on cryotherapy and mental health also supports this claim.
A small 2008 study found that in a third of people with depression or anxiety, cryotherapy reduced symptoms by at least 50 percent. This was a much greater reduction than in people who did not undergo cryotherapy.
7. Improving symptoms of eczema
The chronic inflammatory skin condition known as eczema can cause intensely itchy patches of dry skin. A small 2008 study of people with eczema had participants stop using eczema medications. They then tried cryotherapy. Many of them saw improvements in their eczema symptoms, though some complained of frostbite on small areas of the skin.
8. Treating Migraine Headaches
Targeted cryotherapy that focuses on the neck may help prevent migraine headaches. In a 2013 study, researchers applied cryotherapy to the necks of people who had migraines. The treatment reduced but did not eliminate their pain.
Anecdotal evidence suggests cryotherapy may help with a range of concerns, including slowing or reversing skin aging, supporting fat loss, preventing chronic diseases, and others.
Until further research can support these claims, however, it is impossible to determine accurately how effective cryotherapy is as a treatment.