Posted March 29, 2017

Cryotherapy Doesn’t Work

Let’s talk about something that’s trendy in the media and fitness industry these days. Specifically, the use of supra-physiological levels of extreme cold to do things like promote healing, reduce inflammation, shoot rainbows out of your anus, and every other good sounding buzz word you could think of. I’ll outline why these things likely don’t happen all that well, and why you’re likely better off saving your 80 bucks on these kinds of treatments.

Recently the Food and Drug Administration came out saying that cryotherapy itself was a sham treatment, pretty much devoid of researched benefit.

The use of cold treatment as a means of health benefit have run a fair gambit of applications over history. They were first reported as used in a medical setting under Napolen’s surgeon to help reduce pain and blood flow during amputations following wars as it did help anesthetize and slow blood flow locally prior to surgery. Following that some doctors started using salt solutions at around -25 degrees celsius as a treatment of various types of cancer, as they showed some benefits of shrinking various tumors. This was debunked shortly after.

Following this, solid carbon dioxide (temperatures of -75 celsuis) was used for various skin lesions like warts and skin tags as a method of painless surgical removal. Then liquid oxygen (182 degrees) was used, and then liquid nitrogen (196 degrees) became common. ┬áThis came around following World War II, and if you’ve ever seen the science fair projects of what happens when you put liquid nitrogen on soft fruits, here’s a banana being used to hammer a nail into a board.

Many surgical centers will use whole body cryotherapy in an ice bath in order to reduce blood movement or total body temperature, especially prior to cardiac surgeries or in situations where infections are present and could be life threatening. These typically involve situating the person in crushed ice or an ice bath, which would have a temperature of around 0 degrees.

These are all significantly warmer than many whole-body cryotherapy “treatments” which could get to as low as -150 degrees celsius and even -200 degrees celsius.

Now an interesting fact of cold is that water will freeze when it gets below 0 degrees celsius. The colder it is, the faster that water will freeze. Since our body is made of about 70% water, it’s a big deal to expose yourself to temperatures that cause water to freeze, especially if you’re not wearing protective clothing or have direct cold application to your skin in the form of ice, liquid nitrogen, or circulating air.



In short cold exposures, there’s a bunch of cool things (get i??!?!!?!) that happen physiologically. Your hairs stand on end and you get goose bumps in a reflexive reaction of your pilliary muscles contracting to conserve heat. You have superficial vasoconstriction of capillaries to move heat-carrying blood away from your skin, and you get a nervous system rush similar to an autonomic reaction where muscles tense, breathing becomes a challenge, and you’re essentially in a mild shock. This is fun on occasion.

A downside to prolonged exposure is things like frost bite, where the tissues literally die from not getting the blood flow or having the tissue temperature drop below livable temperatures, and this is dependent on time spent in exposure, as well as the severity of exposure. The colder it is, the faster it can happen.

In cold weather climates, something known as windchill exists. This is when the ambient temperature and wind combine to produce a colder temperature you would feel on your skin. The colder the environment and the stronger the wind, the colder your skin will feel. Even a gentle breeze could cut through to your soul, and windchills of below -50 degrees celsius could cause tissue death in less than 2 minutes.

This is not a fun process. As someone who has had frost nip (essentially the light beer version of frost bite) more than once, your sensitivity to cold becomes pretty high, and you can get numbness and pain with even mild cold exposures. Frost bite, if severe enough, could cause tissue necrosis and lead to amputations.

Now beyond the actual science of stuff, let’s just ask a few hard common sense questions:

  1. Old people with sore joints and muscles retire to warm temperatures from cold temperatures and feel awesome. If cold helped with inflammation and recovery, wouldn’t it be the other way around?
  2. Athletes that compete in winter sports or in winter climates would therefore be able to tolerate higher loading or heavier training exposure than summer athletes. Do we see that?
  3. Training in a cold gym would cause you to lift heavier weights or run harder/faster, especially if those gyms were below freezing temperatures, due to the impact on reduced inflammation or improved circulation. Does this happen?
  4. Previous treatments that used cold to treat the diseases and disorders cryotherapy claims to help or cure would result in significant population reductions in those conditions, and medical recognition that they helped. Has this happened?
  5. Athletes who competed in cold-weather sports like cross country skiing or other similar exposures, would have far less tendinopathy or inflammatory musculoskeletal issues than their activity-mathed warm weather counterparts. Do we see this?

The answer to all would be a resounding no.

Now, there are benefits to short term cold exposure, and at a relatively physiologically attainable temperature. Contrast exposure of going from a sauna into snowbanks or cold water has been used for centuries in Scandinavian countries for health and regeneration, and there’s been some convincing research to show it can improve some health parameters, but the cold exposure is usually to a temperature of 0 degrees to -40, not to -150 or even -200 in some ridiculous situations.

So do your old pal Deano a favour: save your $80 and skip the whole body cryotherapy. There’s better things to spend your money on, like actual health insurance, or maybe some good food. Take a vacation or two, make a friend, stretch something once in a while. Those things will go a lot longer to reducing inflammation and making you feel better than developing an innie in temperatures colder than anywhere on earth.

That, or just come to Edmonton in January. We have all the cryotherapy you could want, and it’s free for the taking.


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