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We all have an old bag of frozen veggies on reserve for relieving aches and pains. Turns out those icy peas are a doctor-approved way to treat injuries, ease soreness, and more. Read on to explore the many ways you can harness cold to treat your pain and see what the experts have to say about it.
Meet the Expert
- Monica Rho, MD, is a Chicago-based associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
- Christopher Hicks, MD, clinical associate of orthopaedic surgery and rehabilitation medicine at University of Chicago, is a board-certified orthopedist who specializes in non-operative sports medicine.
- Brendon Ross, DO, MD, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery and rehabilitation medicine at University of Chicago, is a sports medicine orthopedist and researcher.
What Is Cryotherapy?
While you might associate cryotherapy with boutique salons full of cold exposure chambers, it’s actually the blanket term for using cold to heal the body. “Cryotherapy is using cold to either treat injury or improve performance recovery,” says Ross. “That can be anything from ice packs to ice baths to liquid nitrogen tanks.”
Cryotherapy is regularly used in the sports medicine world to treat injuries, alleviate muscle soreness, and reduce chronic joint pain, says Hicks. Since cryotherapy can be as simple as a bag of ice, it’s an accessible treatment you can use to help keep your body in top form.
Cryotherapy can be especially helpful for treating injuries early on, says Ross. When you’re injured, blood flows to the area and causes swelling. This is your body trying to heal through an inflammatory process, says Ross. Putting ice on the injured area can help decrease swelling and pain. “The ice is going to lock up and close down blood vessels in the area so the swelling goes down,” says Hicks. “You’re basically freezing a nerve, which helps reduce your pain fibers’ ability to cause pain in the injured area.” Using an ice bag or bath can also help relieve chronic joint aches for the same reason, like if you’re a runner with persistent knee pain.
There’s also research showing that cryotherapy can soothe other conditions such as migraines, arthritis, inflammatory skin diseases like atopic dermatitis, and even mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Here’s a quick rundown of how you can benefit from cryotherapy, according to the experts:
- Reduce swelling and inflammation after an injury
- Ease chronic joint pain after exercise
- Relieve symptoms of inflammatory or chronic diseases
Cryotherapy is regularly used to enhance muscle performance and recovery, like taking an ice bath after your workout every day. But there’s evidence to suggest that this might do more harm than good in the case of resistance training, like weight lifting, says Ross. “Using cryotherapy after a workout for muscle recovery is, like with an injury, slowing down the body’s inflammatory response, the assumption being that inflammation is negative,” he says. “But you benefit from some degree of inflammation, because it’s your body’s way of bringing in immune cells to heal itself.”
You also have to be aware of which cryotherapy techniques are more trendy than medically beneficial, says Ross. “Boutique-y cryotherapy chambers are a consumer product, not an FDA-approved medical device,” he says. “But we shouldn’t discount the psychological component of a lot of these consumer performance tools. It can empower the athlete to feel like they’re doing something to help themselves. I just always educate them about the expense and lack of oversight of these products.”
And there are risks to consider when it comes to cold. Extreme temperatures or prolonged exposure can cause anything from minor skin irritation to major tissue damage, particularly in regards to whole-body cryotherapy chambers. “You can get blisters, frostbite, or freezer burn,” says Rho. “You have to be much more cautious about pursuing this if you have any sort of skin disease or a condition that makes you less sensitive in certain areas of your body.”
How to Prepare for Cryotherapy
If you’re using a bag of ice or compress, have a towel on hand as a buffer between the cold and your skin. For ice baths, wear clothes that you don’t mind getting wet.
If you’re opting for the chambers, bring something skimpy to change into, like swimwear. Some salons provide a robe, slippers, and gloves for you to wear throughout. And leave your jewelry at home—metal can get extremely cold in the cryotherapy tank.
What to Expect From Cryotherapy
If you’re using a cold pack, a general rule of thumb is to ice for 15 to 20 minutes three times a day, says Ross. Anything more than that, and you can potentially harm your tissue. For ice baths, limit them to about 15 minutes or less. Baths can be breathtakingly cold, so don’t forget to breathe. And if you’re icing alone, monitor your skin throughout so that you can remove yourself from the cold if you notice changes like skin discoloration or irritation.
Cryotherapy chambers are like being in an extremely cold freezer—around -250 degrees Fahrenheit or more, to be exact. You’ll stand in the cold room or tank for up to three minutes. You might feel tingly afterward as your body returns to a normal temperature.
At-Home Cryotherapy vs. Cryotherapy Chambers
The great thing about cryotherapy is that you can easily do it from home (or really anywhere, for that matter) with ice or cold water to prevent pain or swelling in a particular area. Be sure to consult with your doctor about any new injuries or persistent pain so they can help customize your cryotherapy and tackle the underlying issue.
Cryotherapy chambers, on the other hand, typically expose your entire body to cold and are more often used for muscle recovery or chronic conditions, as opposed to targeting local injuries like a sprained ankle.
Cryotherapy can span from free to expensive, depending on your preferred method of treatment. Pricing for cryotherapy chambers varies based on where you are and how often you get it, but it often ranges from $40 to $100 or more per session.
If you’re using cryotherapy purely to enhance your muscle performance by decreasing normal inflammation, proceed with caution: The treatment might not lead to the gains you’re looking for because it can impede the body’s natural recovery process. But using cold to relieve aches and pains is a tried-and-true treatment with a low bar to entry. Applying cold to a fresh injury or areas of chronic pain can reduce swelling and soreness. And while the scientific jury is still out on the impact of cryotherapy chambers, you may still reap some pain-reducing or muscle-rejuvenating benefits from the full-body cold.
“I’ve been swearing by cryotherapy for decades,” says Hicks. “Clinically and therapeutically, it's clear that it can help the body feel restored.”