Cryotherapy : All Hype or All Right?

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By: Joy Stephenson-Laws, pH Labs Founder

From cryo-facials to cryosurgery, to whole body cryotherapy (WBC) sessions for pain and injury, the world of cryogenics and cryotechnology is a quickly expanding trend that has both medical professionals and athletic elites frozen at attention.  

There are different applications of cryotechnology in the medical field. The most common is cryotherapy, and is used to decrease swelling throughout the entire body, especially in those who overexert themselves athletically. A close second to that is cryosurgical procedures. This delivers a targeted cryo-blast of liquid nitrogen to burn off precancerous or cancerous tissue.

Existing on the outer rim of all this frozen fanfare is cryonics. The idea of cryonics, or cryostasis, was first introduced in 1947. Cryonics is the practice or technique of deep-freezing the bodies of people who have just died, in the hope that scientific advancements may allow them to be revived in the future. While the idea of cryonics may have been presented in the late 40s, the technology and science wasn’t there to bring it to fruition until decades later.  

Today, cryonics and cryopreservation still evoke a sense of sci-fi skepticism. But there are those who remain loyal to the pursuit of using cryotechnology as a means to halt the aging process and skew the universal laws of existence.

Cryotherapy, in a more primitive sense, has been around for centuries. “The ancient Egyptians, and later Hippocrates, were always aware of the analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties of cold. “

‘Cryo-’ means ‘cold’ and using a cold compress to treat injuries is still the go-to method for muscle tears, inflammation, surgical swelling, bumps and bruises. In fact, one of the first things people run for after a fall is an ice pack. Now take that same concept, but envelope the entire body in sub-zero temperatures (usually below negative 200 degrees farenheit) with the help of liquid nitrogen, and you’ve got whole body cryotherapy.

Whole body cryotherapy is usually performed in a special chamber - a cryogenic chamber.  This ensures that appropriate treatment conditions such as temperature and humidity are maintained. The patient must always have regular contact with the therapist while in the chamber. (In my case, I obtained my treatments from Chiltonic and my neck and head were completely  visible and above the chamber. As a result, I was able to have a continuous dialogue with the therapist). Some chambers may maintain visibility using glass doors and a speaker.

The treatment is reported to be extremely safe despite the very low temperatures. “The nitrogen being used to cool the single-person cryosauna is the same nitrogen that makes up the air we breathe (actually 78% of it). In order to protect the more temperature sensitive tissues such as hands and feet, patients wear dry socks, slippers, and gloves. . .During each session the body releases endorphins, which are hormones that make a person feel good and energetic.”

There is also no need to take a shower before or after treatment because the procedure is  completely dry and does not make the skin wet.

The theory behind cryotherapy is that freezing temperature experienced by your body sends signals to the brain which in turn triggers an emergency or survival mode. This causes the body to constrict the blood flow in the outer layers and send the blood supply to the innermost vital organs. While in this “emergency survival mode,”  all the body’s resources are activated. The body’s ability to self heal is enhanced because your blood being enriched with additional oxygen, hormones, enzymes and nutrients - all of which are needed to survive under the extreme emergency created by the cryotherapy. Once you leave the cold environment, the newly enriched and less-toxic blood is flushed back into the rest of the body.

Cryotherapy for Injury, Inflammation, Stress & Glam?

There is no dispute that cryotherapy is taking Hollywood and the rest of the country by storm. It has garnered a loyal fanbase as a futuristic way to wake up cells and reduce inflammation. As the list of pro athletes, actors and Instagram stars continue to join the cryo-bandwagon, the demand for all things ‘cryo’ grows.

According to Grand View Research, cryotherapy is expected to grow to a $5.6 billion global industry by 2024, up from $2.5 billion in 2016.

If you take the word of health and wellness spas that tout whole body cryotherapy as a way to tighten skin and minimize inflammation, it seems cryotherapy may have some more alluring takeaways such as the following:

  • Quick recovery from sports related injuries

  • Relief from chronic pain caused by ailments like rheumatoid arthritis

  • Improve and treat fibromyalgia

  • Improve overall performance in athletes

  • Weight loss

  • Improve stress, mood and reduce anxiety

Given these extraordinary claims and the snowballing of support, in 2016, the FDA pumped the brakes on this blizzardy craze. “If you decide to try WBC, know that the FDA has not cleared or approved any of these devices for medical treatment of any specific medical conditions.”

However, more recent studies and analysis since the 2016 FDA report provide some credible support for various health benefits of WBC.

And when you have a cryo-client list that includes Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, Kate Moss, Jessica Alba and basketball stars Kobe and Lebron, it is hard to stop the avalanche of laymen wanting to reap the supposed benefits.

Just like the temperature, the prices are plummeting too. In most major cities, cryotherapy sessions can be purchased in bundles of 3 for a cool $99, or try it once for a mere $45. With prices this low, and promises that range from weight loss to pain relief, it is easy to see why cryotherapy is all the rage right now.

So Does Whole Body Cryotherapy Actually Work?

That’s the billion dollar question. Does WBC really deliver what it claims? In short, yes. While a few  reports have found no significant evidence that whole body cryotherapy is beneficial in the long term there have been studies conducted more recently that have shown positive results.

There is evidence that WBC decreases inflammation in professional athletes when they are recovering from sports related injuries. One study reported results as recently as 2018 and found that whole body cryotherapy may help decrease oxidative stress in male patients who had inflammatory arthritis of the spine and large joints.

WBC may also increase the levels of norepinephrine which in turn balances the levels of cortisol levels in the body. This may have the effect of improving your energy and mood.

Additional controlled studies need to be carried out, and further knowledge needs to be accumulated to confidently claim that WBC is beneficial for the general public. Right now, if all cryotherapy procedures are supervised and performed by a trained professional, the risks are minimal. If whole body cryotherapy is administered under strict guidelines, it is absolutely safe for the majority of people.

As far as celebrity cryo-facials go, the claim that they increase collagen production and tighten sagging skin, is yet another promise that currently falls short of credible evidence. While patients have said they noticed increased energy levels and a feeling of euphoria after a session, according to   Dr. Aaron Farberg, that is purely anecdotal.

WBC Words of Warning  

There are some legitimate medical warnings that potential cryo-junkies should look out for. Because sudden bursts of sub-zero temperatures haven’t been closely studied, it could have adverse effects on patients with pre-existing conditions such as:

  • Unchecked high blood pressure

  • Heart and lung disease

  • Poor circulation - exposure to extreme cold can make this much worse

  • Allergies that are triggered by cold

  • Patients who have had bouts of neuropathy

Finally, you should note that unlike many European countries where cryotherapy treatments are covered by medical insurance policies, in the United States, whole body cryotherapy is considered “a non-medical wellness modality, and health insurances do not offer reimbursements for the service.”

Enjoy your healthy life!