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Does Cryotherapy for Sore Muscle Relief Really Work?

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Photo: jacoblund / Getty Images

I'll try almost anything in the name of muscle recovery and trendy wellness treatments: I put collagen in my coffee for a month, committed to hip-hop yoga, and tried drinking tart cherry juice post-workout. So when I heard about cryotherapy—the cold treatment that fitness influencers, athletes, and trainers can't seem to get enough of—I was equal parts terrified and intrigued.

I was scared because I'm a self-identified frigophobic (someone who fears being too cold). And cryotherapy involves standing in a very icy cold chamber (we're talking colder than negative 250 degrees cold) for three minutes. But still, after learning about the treatment, I called Grayson Wickham, C.S.C.S., physical therapist and founder of Movement Vault, who told me, "Cryotherapy has not definitively been proven to reduce muscle soreness, but anecdotally, athletes I work with have found that it does."

Anecdotal evidence from a pro was enough for me to give cryotherapy a try. So I booked an appointment at Quick Cryo, a cryotherapy studio a handful of my CrossFit friends had recommended, and I decided to drag a workout buddy along with me. If I was going to be out of commission from frostbite, at least I wouldn't be going through it alone.

We used our upcoming session as an excuse to go extra-hard at the gym that week, because I'd read that cryotherapy might help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and heal already-sore and tight muscles. For a week we did double workouts like we were training for the CrossFit Games. For seven days we hit the box for an hour in the morning, and then returned to it again in the evening for another hour or two. If this cryo chamber says it can cure muscle aches, we were going to challenge it by giving it some serious soreness to freeze away.

Come cryotherapy day, my muscles were in need of some serious relief, and my fears of frostbite and freezing my butt off were holding on strong. But I walked into the studio ready for whatever came next. After signing a waiver, I was greeted by Quick Cryo's founder and CEO John Hoekman who gave me lots of cryotherapy insights (which celebs are using it, the purported benefits) and gave me a heads-up about what I should expect from the experience.

To ease into the cold of cryotherapy, he let me try out a cryo-facial. The quickie-freeze on my face was totally manageable (and dare I say relaxing?). My friend who tagged along told me I looked "more glowy" and awake than usual. Next, I was ready to give the full-body treatment a whirl. If it could make my cheeks look brighter, I was imagining what it could do for my muscles!

Hoekman led us to the changing rooms where we were provided robes to cover up with before getting into the cold, and socks, mittens, Ugg boots, and gloves which we would wear during the treatment to keep our fingers and toes from getting frostbitten. Still a little hesitant, I got real personal with my questions, like if my lady parts would get cold and if I needed to wear underwear. The answer: Underwear was optional, but everything was about to get cold. Very cold. (FYI: Guys are required to wear underwear into the chamber.)

My friend selflessly offered to be the guinea pig and go first. After hyping ourselves up for 20 minutes by listening to Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" on repeat, he stepped in. As an ex-football player, he was used to post-practice ice baths and looked eerily calm during the three-minute stunt. I played rugby in college, so I too had endured the pain of an ice bath, so when he told me cryotherapy was way less painful than ice, I believed him and figured I was just being a drama queen about the whole thing.

When he came out looking relaxed, I knew I was ready to show the negative 306 degree temperatures who's boss. I anxiously climbed into the chamber, and after Hoekman shut the door, I threw my robe off and stood there completely naked. The chamber's height was adjusted so my head could be poking out of the top. Then a switch was flipped and the machine turned on.

It started off as a somewhat pleasant misting of cool air. Then, things got really, really cold. As the temperature began to drop, I felt tiny hairs on my body begin to stand straight up. Then, it felt like millions of tiny needle pricks were poking at my legs as the blood rushed from my extremities to my vital organs to keep my core temperature warm enough. Hoekman says this was my body's defense mechanism from the cold—pumping blood and oxygen throughout the body to stay warm enough internally.

I'd also be lying if I said that 60 seconds in I didn't think about busting open the door and cutting the whole thing short. After I wailed "I'm nervous, I'm nervous, I'm nervous" repeatedly, Hoekman told me to raise my arms up above my head and wave them around, which would get them out of the cold chamber for a bit. Plus, dancing around was definitely a welcome distraction from the Antarctic temps.

When the three minutes ended, I scooted out of the chamber and into the bathrobe faster than you can say "cryotherapy." To put it into perspective, my friend told me I looked more exhausted than when I finished the CrossFit Murph workout, which is one of the toughest WODs you can do.

But despite that pathetic ending, in just less than a minute post-cryotherapy, I felt an insane surge of energy, bopping around the room like I had just had a triple shot of espresso. I later discovered this was probably due to the rush of endorphins I got from the icy temperatures and subsequently knowing I was going to get through those three minutes after all.

As I danced around the little room putting my clothes back on, I wondered, "Am I just experiencing a rush of satisfaction from facing my fear of the cold and challenging myself? Or is this buzz a result of my body's internal response to the cryo?" It was probably a combination of all of that, or maybe even just a placebo effect, but for the next three hours, I was hyped up from the cold. And I have to admit, as miserable as I was during the three-minute stunt, I can see how the I-could-run-a-marathon-right-now feeling afterward would be addictive.

And if you're wondering if it helped relieve my muscle soreness? When I came down from the adrenaline buzz, I checked in with my muscles, and well, I went in with incredibly sore legs and came out with slightly less sore legs. While I felt like I could take on the squat rack again if I had to, I can't say that it reduced my soreness any more than 10 minutes of foam rolling usually does. A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that cryotherapy after a workout didn't affect muscle soreness, strength, swelling, or inflammation, so my experience isn't too surprising.

Cryotherapy (at least the kind that's readily available at swanky studios) is fairly new, so science is still emerging, and I'm optimistic with the anecdotal results I'm hearing from other people. In fact, my cryo buddy went back to the gym after our session and reported that his legs felt "fresh enough to deadlift for 30 minutes."

But ultimately, with the lackluster muscle relief and the high price tag (cryotherapy can cost anywhere from $65 to $100 a session), I'd say investing in a foam roller is the more economical and research-backed choice for relieving muscle soreness. (These awesome recovery tools for sore muscles are solid bets too.)

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