Cryotherapy, or cold therapy, is when health professionals administer extreme cold to a person’s body, or parts of their body, in a controlled setting for therapeutic purposes

Localized cryotherapy might involve using products such as ice packs.

Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) involves exposing the whole body to temperatures of minus 200 to minus 300ºF, or minus 129 to minus 184ºC, for no more than 4 minutes at a time.

Healthcare professionals recommend cryotherapy for a number of conditions. It is an important treatment for certain skin lesions, for example. Some practitioners might recommend cryotherapy for people with multiple sclerosis (MS).

It is worth noting, however, that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved WBC to treat any medical condition, including MS.

This article describes cryotherapy and how it may help people with MS, as well as the risks, such as side effects. It also looks into other tips for managing MS symptoms.

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WBC is a relatively new therapy, and scientists do not fully understand its possible benefits.

However, studies show that WBC can briefly ease pain in people with certain inflammatory conditions.

Some researchers theorize that exposure to extremely cold temperatures for short intervals modifies actions of the nervous system and reduces levels of hormones linked with stress and inflammation.

One 2020 study concluded that for people with moderate or severe MS-related disability, vigorous cool room training could potentially reduce fatigue and improve walking ability, fitness, and the quality of life.

Learn about the history of cryotherapy here.

Proponents of WBC believe that it has many benefits and that these may make it an attractive addition to treatment for MS and other health conditions. They say that its potential benefits include:

  • reducing inflammation
  • relieving nerve irritation and pain
  • improving mood
  • reducing fatigue

Reducing inflammation

MS is an autoimmune disease characterized by chronic inflammation of the central nervous system. Reducing inflammation may slow and even reverse some effects of MS.

Studies in rats confirm that cryotherapy can reduce inflammation. Other studies, with athletes, further confirm that cryotherapy can reducing exercise-related inflammation. The effects of localized cryotherapy, such as applying an ice pack after an injury or freezing off a wart, are well known.

Researchers continue to explore the potential for cryotherapy to reduce inflammation caused by diseases such as diabetes. Determining if and how cryotherapy may reduce inflammation stemming from MS will require further research.

Scientists are still unsure of the effects of WBC on heart function, metabolism, and other aspects of health. Very little research has looked into WBC.

Relieving nerve irritation and pain

MS attacks the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Resulting damage to the nerves can cause pain and irritation, as well as weakness.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, cryotherapy can reduce nerve activity, which might ease nerve pain and irritation. However, research into the potential for cryotherapy to treat specific health issues, such as MS, is ongoing.

Improved mood

Depression is one of the most common symptoms of MS.

The capacity for cryotherapy to ease depression remains unclear. However, small studies show that WBC in combination with drug-based treatment may reduce depression symptoms and improve the quality of life more than antidepressants alone.

It is worth noting, however, that some people have depression linked with low vitamin D levels and low sun exposure. In this case, a person may benefit from cold therapy alongside periods of sun exposure.

Decreased fatigue

About 75–95% of people with MS experience fatigue.

A small review of studies found that cryotherapy reduced fatigue in participants with MS. This occurred after 10 sessions of WBC, which may be more effective for people with fatigue that is severe.

Exposing the body to extreme cold, even for short periods, carries several risks. The American Academy of Dermatology Associates (AAD) reports that WBC can lead to serious skin injuries, including:

  • Frostbite: The AAD notes that 16% of people who undergo WBC develop frostbite.
  • Frozen limb: It also cites a case in which the arm of someone trying WBC for the first time froze, and when it thawed, there were painful swelling, blisters, and third degree burns.
  • Rashes: Some people who have undergone WBC develop a rash called cold panniculitis, which results from the cold temperatures injuring the deepest layers of skin.

Additional risks include:

  • suffocation
  • memory loss
  • eye injury
  • death

Because there is very little scientific evidence that WBC is safe or effective, the FDA has not approved it as a treatment for any condition, including MS.

Learn what WBC can feel like here.

Side effects of cryotherapy include:

  • numbness
  • tingling
  • skin irritation
  • redness

To reduce all associated risks, only have cryotherapy as directed — never at colder temperatures or for longer periods than experts recommend.

Anyone with MS who is interested in trying cryotherapy should speak with a doctor first. They can offer advice and may be able to recommend a reputable provider.

Follow professional guidance about clothing, blankets, goggles, and other forms of protection. This might involve wearing dry, loose-fitting clothing, including socks and gloves, to protect the skin from injury.

The following strategies can help manage MS symptoms:

  • working with the doctor to tailor the treatment plan
  • resting as needed, when possible
  • having physical and occupational therapy to support mobility
  • having cognitive rehabilitation
  • exercising, if the doctor recommends it
  • avoiding anything that makes the symptoms worse, including heat
  • having cognitive behavioral therapy to manage related mood disorders and sleep problems

Cryotherapy involves exposing part or all of the body to extreme cold for therapeutic purposes.

WBC may have benefits for people with MS, but the FDA has not approved this as a treatment. This is because of a lack of scientific evidence that it is safe or effective and the extent of the risks.

More research into how cryotherapy works is necessary. Anyone interested in trying WBC should consult a doctor first.