Don’t try this at home: the hottest new thing in the spa world is cryotherapy. A cutting-edge version of the traditional ice bath, cryotherapy uses sub-zero temperatures to supposedly improve health, fitness, and overall well-being.
Proponents of cryotherapy maintain that it reduces pain, inflammation, swelling, stress, anxiety, and insomnia – and that it helps you to lose weight and look younger as well. But does cryotherapy really work and moreover: is it safe?
Cold Therapy: You’ve Already Tried It
Chances are, you have already experienced the effectiveness of cold therapy techniques for pain management. Have you ever used an ice pack or bag of frozen peas to soothe a sore body part? Or found headache relief from a cold washcloth or chilled eye mask? That’s cold therapy.
Ice Baths & Ice Swimming
Ice baths are another type of cold therapy commonly used in the world of sports and athletics, usually after an intense bout of exercise. While some athletes like Michael Phelps, Kobe Bryant, and Karyn Marshall use ice baths to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, the scientific evidence is thus far inconclusive.
Ice swimming has long been a winter tradition in many Northern European countries, where it goes hand in hand with sauna culture as a stress-relieving activity. Polar bear plunges are common occurrences in America as well. But be cautious – submerging your body in freezing temperatures can be extremely dangerous, and even deadly.
Cryotherapy: How It Works
Today’s cryotherapy spas take cold therapy to a whole new level. Using special chambers filled with liquid nitrogen, cryotherapy sessions use extremely cold temperatures in an attempt to relieve pain and improve health.
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At the cryotherapy spa, you’ll put on a protective swimsuit plus thick gloves, socks, and slippers to protect your extremities against frostbite. You’ll also wear an ear and mouth guard. Next, you’ll step into a capsule-like chamber where you’ll quickly be encased in a freezing cold gas. Some chambers progressively get colder, and you’ll stay at each temperature for several seconds up to a few minutes. Other take you right to minus-300 degrees Fahrenheit.
As your body temperature plummets, your heart will pump more blood and oxygen through your system. Your surface capillaries will cool and constrict. Once you return to a room of normal temperature, the pain-relieving effects begin. Your body releases feel-good endorphins and your blood vessels expand. You feel a rush of energy – and you feel great. But can cryotherapy have a lasting effect on your health and fitness?
The Science is Out on the Cryo Trend
So far, no credible scientific studies have proven cryotherapy to have any lasting impacts on overall health and well-being. Using an ice pack to relieve pain from a swollen ankle or migraine has proven anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects – but that’s a far cry from shivering for several minutes in sub-zero temperatures.
Even ice baths are controversial, with many people questioning the benefits when weighed against the risk of hypothermia (which can lead to shock and sudden death). A recent study in Science Daily showed that ice baths after strength training actually hinders muscle recovery.
Try at Your Own Risk
Trendy? Oh yes. Cryotherapy spas are opening across the nation. But like any new health trend, it is wise to talk with your medical professional before you take the plunge, and vet the spa you're planning to visit.
Two Las Vegas cryotherapy spas were recently shut down after an employee froze to death in a chamber. Cryotherapy can kill you in minutes if done improperly – so you don’t want a high school kid working the doors on your spa. Currently, the FDA does not regulate cryotherapy chambers or recognize any benefits. Proceed with caution.
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