Cryotherapy Sports & Health Benefits
The prevention and treatment of muscle pain and soreness is the most common reason people turn to cryotherapy. We are all aware that cold therapy can provide pain relief after surgery or an injury. After all, isn’t an ice pack something we all have in our first aid kits?
Cryotherapy is a more intense version of this type of treatment that can be used to treat acute injuries, trauma, or even muscle strain from exercise. Widely used in sports medicine, both whole-body and localized cryotherapy treatments are commonly suggested for those recovering from an injury. They can also be used to promote healing after overuse (11).
Because exercise is known to produce inflammation and pain, cryotherapy is also sometimes used as a preventative strategy.
One of the largest reviews of the literature currently available on cryotherapy benefits found that cryotherapy helps reduce pain in 80 percent of studies, and athletes experienced improved recovery and overall performance in 71 percent of studies.
This review also indicated that whole-body cryotherapy has few, if any, side effects, for those using it for these purposes (12).
Decreased Inflammation & Tissue Damage
As a part of the same review of the available literature, it was noted that cryotherapy also reduces systemic inflammation, and promotes healthy muscle tissue overall (13).
With multiple exposures, it is believed that cryotherapy can improve recovery time and promote healing. With repeated treatments, patients saw less pain, improved muscle function, and lower levels of inflammation when compared to those who underwent single treatments.
When inflammation is reduced, you are able to return more quickly to high-intensity physical activity, thus reducing recovery time. When you have inflammation for a prolonged period, you are more likely to have reduced blood flow, more pain, and less mobility. Empirical evidence also supports the claims that cryotherapy can reduce inflammation.
A 2010 study stated that cryotherapy conducted on athletes modifies several essential physiological and biochemical parameters related to inflammatory response. These included changes in the status of antioxidants, fewer muscular enzymes related to muscle damage, and fewer pro-inflammatory cytokines (14).
There are a number of anti-inflammatory proteins that are shown to increase after cryogenic chamber treatment, including cytokines IL-6, IL-10, and IL-1ra, and the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-1α also decreases with cryotherapy treatment.
When you complete multiple sessions, these results are shown to last longer (15, 16). By restricting blood flow, cryotherapy is able to reduce exercise-induced inflammation (17).Other controlled studies have shown a reduction in other pro-inflammatory proteins, such as IL-1β.
In these studies, athletes were given whole-body cryotherapy treatment prior to exercise, and the protein levels were measured after exercise (18). The evidence to support these claims is not sufficient for some researchers, though.
In 2014, a review of the literature claimed there was insufficient evidence regarding the ability of whole-body cryotherapy to improve recovery time or have a significant impact on antioxidant capacity. The argument maintained in this review is that cryotherapy does not sufficiently cool the core body temperature to lead to lasting inflammation reduction.
These researchers maintain that using ice packs and other localized treatments are just as effective as whole-body cryotherapy methods (19).