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How Does Cryotherapy Work?

Quickly growing in popularity, cryotherapy is a wellness treatment used by some of the biggest celebrities and athletes in the world. Mark Wahlberg, Lebron James, and Rafael Nadal are just some of the mega-stars that use, and reportedly rave, about the therapy’s many virtues. It is said to reduce pain, burn fat, tighten skin, reduce cellulite, and promote better sleep. But does it work, and if so, how?

What is Cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy refers to a whole host of different forms of treatment, but notable use of cold temperatures is the unique and essential healing component of all of these therapeutic processes. Ancient Egyptians used cold to treat inflammation, and in the 19th century doctors began using it to treat skin conditions. The treatment that is growing in popularity amongst celebrities is actually known as whole-body cryotherapy, and it requires a bit more in the way of technology than they had access to in 2500 BC Cairo. 

Whole-body cryotherapy, put simply, is the process of exposing the whole body to subzero temperatures in order to elicit a natural anti-inflammatory response, release endorphins, and reduce bodily pain. Originally developed by a Japanese rheumatologist to treat osteo and rheumatoid arthritis, it was soon discovered to have a great many other curative benefits and potential applications. 

How Does Whole-Body Cryotherapy Work?

Whole-body cryotherapy is just what it sounds like: the whole body (minus the head) is exposed to ultra-cold temperatures. To do this, scientists developed something called a cryosauna, which is a kind of tube-like chamber cooled by liquid nitrogen to a temperature between -225°F and -250°F. Cryosauna users step into the chamber and the frigid temperatures instantly send the body into a natural fight or flight response. As blood vessels constrict, blood is redirected away from the extremities and toward the core in order to protect the organs. The body then becomes charged with oxygen and anti-inflammatory proteins, and excess white blood cells are flushed out, boosting the metabolic rate. 

After exiting the cryosauna, blood vessels dilate and rush oxygen-rich blood and endorphins back through the body. And then, in an effort to warm itself back to equilibrium, the body undergoes a metabolic reaction that can burn up to 800 calories in the hours proceeding treatment. Because these temperatures are actually colder than Antarctica in December, whole-body cryotherapy sessions only last 2-4 minutes. Stay in a cryosauna chamber for too long and you can get frostbite!

Is Cryotherapy Backed By Science?

If you’re wondering whether there is any scientific value to cryotherapy, the answer is: yes!  One German study found that cryotherapy offered temporary relief from pain associated with both rheumatoid arthritis and strenuous exercise, a 2018 study showed that the body burns up fat and calories in the hours post cryotherapy session, and a different different 2018 study showed that cryotherapy reduces the appearance of cellulite and promotes tighter, younger-looking skin. What’s more, a 2019 study showed that cryotherapy helps the body relax and consequently improves sleep, a Polish study found that whole body cryotherapy was effective in short-term treatment for both anxiety and depression, and a 2013 study found localized cryotherapy to help alleviate migraine headaches in chronic sufferers. Sounds pretty good, right? 

How Does Localized Cryotherapy Work?

Localized cryotherapy is another form of modern cryotherapy garnering rave reviews, and it is much like whole-body cryotherapy. The biggest difference between whole-body and localized treatments is that in the latter therapy, a specific area of the body is targeted with the freezing nitrogen. While local cryotherapy can refer to a treatment as simple as administering frozen peas to a sore back, the therapeutic technique typically refers to the use of a hose to concentrate liquid nitrogen into a pressurized beam of vapor. This causes blood vessels to constrict and the stimulation of collagen production (the main structural protein found in skin and other connective tissues), both of which provide immediate relief from pain and inflammation. The treatment is finished once an infrared thermometer detects the desired skin-surface temperature, usually around five to ten minutes. Those looking for quicker recovery times will often pair it with whole-body cryotherapy, too.  

While whole-body cryotherapy is a general treatment that aids in a host of issues, its localized counterpart is far more specific. It targets select discomforts and, similarly to a massage, alleviates kinks in a particular area. This is achieved by increasing microcirculation, promoting collagen growth, and boosting endorphins, adrenaline, and norepinephrine production. Endorphins activate the body’s opiate receptors, which help to relieve pain, improve sleep, and boost mood. Norepinephrine acts as a mild sedative, helping the body to relax and sleep more restfully. Whatever your preference, Whole-body or localized, both have been shown to have amazing restorative effects. 

It is no wonder, then, that cryotherapy is gaining rapid popularity. Though it is not recommended for pregnant women and those with high blood pressure or heart conditions, the non-invasive alternative to traditional medicine 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, both whole-body and localized cryotherapy have already shown themselves to be great options for those looking for faster recovery times or a non-medical addition to a healthy lifestyle. 

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