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Cryotherapy for Muscle Recovery : Is it Effective?


Do you find yourself still suffering from painful, aching muscles days after an intense workout? If you do then you may be looking for a solution to these DOMS.

Would cryotherapy be the solution you are looking for?

The following article will look at this form of therapy in more detail. We will look at the potential benefits and side effects before deciding if cryotherapy is an effective method for muscle recovery.[toc]

What is Cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy literally means “cold therapy”, it is a process that involves exposing the body to extremely cold temperatures for several minutes at a time.

Typically the temperature will drop lower than minus 200°, with the treatments ranging from a couple of minutes up to half an hour if you choose whole body cryotherapy.

Ice packs are a form of cryotherapy and involve placing the pack onto an isolated part of your body to ease the pain and inflammation; for example your lower back.

Whole body cryotherapy would involve one of the following methods.

Either standing alone in an individual enclosure that is open at the top, with your torso and legs enclosed within the device. Or, with several people in a totally enclosed chamber.

More often than not the freezing temperatures are achieved through the use of liquid nitrogen, although other methods can be used, for example by cooling the air in a circuit.

Sometimes just the one session will be enough for adequate recovery, although some athletes will use it twice daily. It is claimed that regular use will offer the most benefit.

Is Cryotherapy Good for Muscle Recovery?

There are various ways that cryotherapy can aid your training [1][2][3][4][5][6].

Using this form of treatment is effective for treating pain, both acute and chronic pain. It can also help to reduce muscle spasms, DOMS and inflammation by reducing the release of inflammatory mediators.

During treatment the cold temperature will affect your skin’s surface, causing your thermoreceptors to send electrical impulses to your brain, telling it that you are freezing.

When this occurs your body will go into a defensive mode where it will send the blood, nutrients and resources to your organs within your body.

During this process, your body will start to oxygenate your blood, which involves the flushing of toxins and lactic acid.

After you leave the cryosauna or chamber your body will start to return to its normal state. So you will experience an increased blood flow of your newly oxygenated blood.

This increased blood flow causes your blood vessels to dilate to distribute heat. It is during this stage that the nutrient-rich blood is distributed around your body.

Other Potential Benefits of Cryotherapy

Aiding muscle recovery is not the only claimed benefit of cryotherapy. It is also claimed to help:

Reduce Migraines

It has been shown that cryotherapy can help relieve the symptoms of migraines by cooling and numbing the nerves found in your neck.

A study found that if you apply a neck wrap containing 2 frozen ice packs to the carotid arteries of your neck the symptoms of migraine were reduced [7].

It is believed that the relief is caused by cooling the blood before it passes through the intracranial vessels.

Treat Mood Disorders

Cryotherapy has been shown to release hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and various endorphins that can have a positive impact on those suffering from anxiety and depression [8].

Reduce Arthritic Pain

One study found that whole-body cryotherapy could help reduce the pain suffered by those with arthritis [9].

This allowed for more aggressive physiotherapy and occupational therapy, making rehabilitation more effective.

Treat Cancer

While it is still in its infancy, cryotherapy or “cryosurgery” is being used to treat low-risk tumours for certain cancer types, including prostate cancer [10].

When you undergo cryosurgery the cancer cells are frozen and surrounded with ice crystals.

Prevent Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Research is in its infancy, but it is believed that cryotherapy can help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s due to the anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects of the treatment [11].

Treat Dermatitis and Other Skin Conditions

It is believed that cryotherapy can treat atopic dermatitis as it helps to improve antioxidant levels in the blood, while also reducing inflammation [12].

Another study found that it could target the sebaceous glands, which produces sebum that can cause acne [13].

Side Effects of Cryotherapy

While there are certainly benefits to be gained from cryotherapy there are also some potential risks or side effects that you should be made aware of [14].

For instance:

  • Your skin tissue may experience unusual sensations after treatment, such as numbness or tingling.
  • You may encounter redness or irritation to your skin. This is usually a temporary issue.
  • Localised cold therapy treatment should only be applied for no longer than 30 minutes. Increased exposure can cause integumentary damage, which may include frostbite.
  • Whole body cryotherapy can cause a decreased heart rate, higher blood pressure and a lowered respiration. It is therefore advised that the treatment does not exceed 5 minutes (typically a treatment will last 2-3 minutes). Your vital signs should be monitored before, during and after treatment.
  • Clothing and skin should be completely dry, jewellery should be removed before entering the cryotherapy chamber. Also, sensitive body parts should be covered, a facemask, ear muffs, gloves and socks/slippers should be worn. Failure to do this can potentially result in the burning of your skin or frostbite [15].

If you have a history of any of the following illnesses or conditions then cryotherapy may not be suitable for you, it is advisable that you speak to your doctor before starting treatment:

  • Any respiratory illness
  • If you have had a heart attack recently (within 6 months)
  • High blood pressure
  • Unstable angina pectoris
  • Cardiovascular disease or any arrhythmia
  • Circulatory disorders
  • A history of stroke or cerebral haemorrhage
  • History of seizures
  • Raynaud’s syndrome
  • Bleeding disorders
  • Acute or chronic kidney disease
  • Metal implants or pacemakers
  • If you are under the age of 18

In Conclusion

While there are undoubtedly benefits to be gained from cryotherapy, including improved muscle recovery. This treatment won’t be for everyone.

There are some side effects associated with this treatment, but our main concern is the cost of the treatment.

Typically whole body cryotherapy will cost around £90. There will likely be cheaper places to pay for treatment, but you have to remember that this is for a 2-3 minute session.

You have to ask yourself whether the benefits offered are worth the price.

If pain relief and faster recovery from exercise is your main goal then cryotherapy may not be the most cost-effective option available for you.

One of the cheapest methods of recovery is foam rolling, but our recommendation would be the use of CBD oil.

CBD oil can interact with your pain receptors, helping to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. This can help speed up recovery from intense exercise.

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