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How Does Cryotherapy Differ From an Ice Bath or Applying Ice Locally?

Most people that have struggled through strain, sprain or other injury know that icing is a great first step in addressing pain and soreness. We ice because cold temperatures constrict blood vessels and decrease circulation, both of which help to reduce swelling and inflammation in injured areas. 

Whether it is a simple ice cube compress, a DIY bag of frozen peas, an at-home ice bath, or the more technologically advanced whole-body cryotherapy, cold therapy comes in many forms. But how do these therapeutic measures differ? Do more technologically advanced forms of cold therapy actually lead to quicker recovery times and less pain? Read on to find out how ordinary ice treatments stack up against cryotherapy.

Temperature

Perhaps the most pronounced difference between cryotherapy and ice therapy is that cryotherapy uses liquid nitrogen instead of frozen water. These are completely different substances with completely different chemical compositions. Liquid nitrogen, for one, is stored at -200°F to -320°F, while ice is incapable of reaching such frigidity––the coldest recorded ice sheet temperature only reached -144°F, in fact. Additionally, liquid nitrogen is produced only through an industrial process known as fractional distillation of liquid air, and ice is of course produced through a natural phase transition. This is important to know because the colder temperatures at which cryotherapy functions make it a more effective aid in the athletic recovery process.

Length of Process

The most convenient difference between the treatments is that cryotherapy takes 

only two to three minutes, while both localized application and ice baths typically take much longer. The time-consuming nature of ice treatment gives the body more time to react to frigid temperatures, whereas cryotherapy is over so soon that the body doesn’t process the full extent of the chill it was just exposed to. 

Response in Muscle Tissue

During the first twenty minutes of an ice bath, soft tissue and muscle start to 

freeze and lose their capacity, which means that there’s a lengthy recovery period required for the iced muscles to regain that capacity. Practically, this means that the iced muscles shouldn’t be engaged for at least a day, and this can be detrimental to workout and athletic routines. Cryotherapy, on the other hand, doesn’t actually freeze muscle tissue; rather, it produces a perception of freezing in the body’s nervous system, invoking a fight or flight response. This is also because the dry, cold air utilized by cryotherapy only penetrates ½ mm into the skin, which isn’t deep enough to produce the muscle congealment that prolonged exposure to subzero water can. And while an ice bath recovery can require multiple sessions of thirty minutes or more, the same effects are gained from a single three-to-five minute cryotherapy session. Even better, treated muscles can be engaged the same day, so there won’t be any disruption to your training regimen. 

Signals Sent

The differences between cryotherapy and traditional ice therapy also occur on a 

physiological level. During the body’s submersion in ice, it attempts to rapidly warm the blood in the body’s core back to regular temperature. This takes a great deal of energy, and exhaustion after prolonged exposure is routine. And once the body realizes it isn’t capable of warming the blood back to optimal temperatures, muscles begin to congeal and freeze, leading to hypothermia or even death. But cryotherapy works differently. The freezing liquid nitrogen engenders the sensation of bodily danger, which creates a central nervous response: fight or flight. As thermo-recepters in the dermis of the skin rapidly cool, the brain sends out a systemwide injunction for the body to vasoconstrict. This sends oxygen and nutrient-rich blood, collagen and endorphins from the body’s core to its peripheral systems. 

Levels of Oxygenation

Another difference between traditional ice therapies and cryotherapy is the levels of oxygen provided to the skin’s surface during treatment. With an ice bath, oxygen supply to the skin and surface tissue halts, which can potentially promote skin disease. After a cryotherapy procedure, on the other hand, collagen is promoted. Collagen is a vital protein and its promotion dramatically improves skin, hair, and nail health. This accelerated collagen production also results in a lifted, tightening effect to the skin. The body normally slows collagen production at around thirty, but cryotherapy can help counter that trend. The procedure results in a lifted, tightening effect to the skin, and the intense cold also causes blood vessels to contract and pores to tighten. Once skin returns to its normal temperature, the blood vessels dilate quickly, which causes an increase in the flow of blood and oxygen and makes skin look more vibrant. The accelerated production of collagen also improves skin texture and elasticity, both of which help stall the appearance of aging.

Levels of Pain

Cryotherapy, unlike ice therapy, features no moisture, and as such there’s no pain. Icing isn’t cold or fast enough to create vasodilation (the dilation of blood vessels), which means that when the brain feels the slow freezing effect of the ice, it wants to send blood to the area to warm it up. This all slows the removal of lactic acid in the tissue, which can cause delayed onset muscle soreness. The wetness from icy water can also waterlog the skin and lead to painful irritation, redness, and damage to the skin sensory structures. Though cryotherapy can obviously be quite a shock to the system (you don’t take a trip down to antarctica every day, after all), it is an overall painless procedure. 

So, there you have it: cryotherapy is a vastly more effective recovery aid than either an ice pack or bath. A non-invasive alternative to traditional medicine, cryotherapy is designed for those seeking improved athletic recovery time, decreased joint pain and inflammation, increased metabolism, healthier skin, deeper sleep, and better moods. 

Though research is still forthcoming as to just how effective it is as a treatment, cryotherapy has already shown itself to be a great option for those looking for a non-medical addition to a healthy lifestyle. Though this unique cold herapy is not recommended for everyone, cryotherapy is a safe and advantageous pain management and recovery tool.

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