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Does Cryotherapy Work for Pain Relief?

Cryotherapy is a popular wellness treatment garnering rave reviews. High-profile athletes like Stephen Curry and Lebron James reportedly use it, and Cristiano Ronaldo is even said to like the treatment so much that he installed a chamber in his home!

Why Is Cryotherapy So Popular?

Well, among a whole host of other benefits, cryotherapy both aids performance recovery and offers excellent pain relief. This makes a lot of sense on an intuitive level. When you pull or strain a muscle, often the first thing you’ll reach for is an ice pack or maybe even a bag of frozen peas. Cryotherapy can be thought of in essentially the same way––as the world’s most technologically advanced bag of frozen peas. It is fitting, then, that it was originally developed in the 1970s as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. This is because its natural anti-inflammatory response provides excellent relief from muscular aches and irritated nerves. Cryotherapy also flushes lactic acid from the body and accelerates the production rate of collagen, which is the main structural protein found in skin and other connective tissues. Increased collagen both improves skin elasticity and is the primary protein the body uses to repair muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments. Sports-related pain relief and arthritic pain relief are the primary forms of pain relief that cryotherapy offers. 

The two most common types of cryotherapy are whole-body cryotherapy (WBC), in which all but the head is exposed to frigid temperatures, and localized cryotherapy, in which only a portion of the body is exposed. In a standard cryotherapy treatment, patients step into a cryosauna––a chamber cooled using vaporized nitrogen––for a three to five minute period. It is not recommended for pregnant women, those with high blood pressure, those with major heart or lung conditions, those with poor circulation, or those with neuropathy (nerve disease) in the legs or feet.

Sports-Related Pain Relief

The primary pain relief cryotherapy offers is pain from athletic and exercise-related strains and aches. A bevy of recent research backs up this claim. A study in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine found that whole-body cryotherapy lowers skin and muscle temperatures, reduces soreness in the short term, and accelerates recovery. The study also found whole-body cryotherapy to be helpful with “adhesive capsulitis,” or frozen shoulder syndrome, a condition in which shoulder joint motion is severely and painfully inhibited.  

A Polish study, this one actually designed to see whether whole-body cryotherapy could work as adjunct treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, found that WBC had positive effects on the activation of the endogenous opioid system––or, in other words, the brain’s pain control system. The researchers hypothesized that this activation of the brain’s opioid peptide systems can play a role in the treatment of mental health disorders, but we already know as a fact that these opioids––much like the class of drugs they share a name with––alleviate bodily pain. Whole-Body Cryotherapy also boosts endorphin and norepinephrine production, both of which activate the body’s opiate receptors, relieve pain, and improve sleep. Norepinephrine also acts as a mild sedative, helping the body to relax and sleep more restfully, as one study showed. 

Per Johns Hopkins, cryotherapy for pain relief can be used for runner’s knee, tendonitis, sprains, arthritis pain, pain and swelling after a hip or knee replacement, pain or swelling under a cast or a splint, or lower back pain. They also noted that whole-body cryotherapy lowers skin temperature, reduces nerve activity, reducing swelling and even sensitivity to pain. It is particularly effective when managing pain with swelling around a joint or tendon. 

Arthritic Pain Relief

The other pain relief cryotherapy offers is arthritic. Much of the research has been conducted in Europe, specifically Germany. One German study found that cryotherapy offered temporary relief from pain associated with both rheumatoid arthritis and strenuous exercise. The findings showed that pain level after application of WBC decreased significantly, especially in the 90 minutes immediately after treatment. A second German study followed 60 patients with rheumatoid arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis. A significant reduction of pain over a period of 2 months was shown. Overall they found whole-body cryotherapy to be “an effective treatment” for both inflammatory rheumatic diseases. Finally, a third German study targeting a similar demographic found cryotherapy to be an “attractive therapeutic agent in the multimodal treatment…for inflammatory rheumatic diseases”

A 2014 study offered a systematic review of the current evidence on the effects of cryotherapy on inflammatory rheumatic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis. The researchers reviewed six studies including 257 arthritis sufferers, and they found a significant decrease in pain after chronic cryotherapy. They also noted that cryotherapy induced an intra-joint temperature decrease, which has the potential to decrease several of the mediators involved in joint inflammation and destruction. This all led the researchers to conclude that cryotherapy “should be included in RA [rheumatoid arthritis] therapeutic strategies as an adjunct therapy.

The data is clear: cryotherapy is an excellent source of relief from both exercise-related and arthritic aches and pains. Though more research needs to be conducted to determine just how effective it is as a pain management treatment, it is nevertheless an excellent alternative to traditional pharmacological pain management. Furthermore, cryotherapy is also of great benefit to those seeking improved athletic recovery time, increased metabolism, healthier skin, deeper sleep, and better moods. Both whole-body and localized cryotherapy have shown themselves to be great options for those looking for non-medical additions to a healthy lifestyle. 


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