What Is Cryotherapy (And Should You Try It)?
The truth about those cryo chambers you've seen all over your Instagram feed.
If you follow any professional athletes or trainers on social media, you're probably familiar with cryo chambers. The weird-looking pods are somewhat reminiscent of standing tanning booths, except they drop your body temperature and are meant to help heal your body. Though cryotherapy has several different applications (some use it for anti-aging skin care and as a way to burn calories), it's popular in the fitness community for its recovery benefits.
You're probably pretty familiar with post-workout soreness, but you might not know that it's due to lactic acid buildup and micro tears in your muscle tissue. Even though it's the kind of pain that hurts. so. good., it can decrease your athletic performance over the next 36 hours. Enter: The need for faster recovery.
When your body is exposed to intense cold (like in a cryo chamber), your blood vessels constrict and redirect blood flow to your core. As your body warms itself back up after the treatment, oxygen-rich blood flushes to the areas that were just cold, potentially reducing inflammation. "Theoretically, we'd like to think this reduces tissue damage and ultimately facilitates recovery," says Michael Jonesco, D.O., a sports medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Cryotherapy is nothing new-it's the cryo chamber that's real innovation. "Research on the effects of cryotherapy was published in earnest in the mid-1950s," says Ralph Reiff, M.Ed., ATC, LAT, executive director of St. Vincent Sports Performance. But the cryo chamber was recently developed as a faster, more efficient, total-body method.
Still, not all experts are convinced it really works. "Despite being one of the oldest and commonly used practices in sports medicine injuries, there are few, if any, good studies that suggest that ice in any form aids in injury recovery at all," Dr. Jonesco says.
That being said, plenty of major sports facilities utilize cryotherapy (in various forms) for faster recovery between workouts. "Post-exercise cryotherapy decreases the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)," Reiff says from his own experience with athletes. There are a few studies that have looked at cryo chambers specifically, but Dr. Jonesco notes that they're small and need to be reproduced on a larger scale before we can draw definitive conclusions.
One thing's for sure: If you have a specific injury, a cryo chamber isn't the way to go. "Cryo chambers appear to be less effective at lowering body temperature versus a simple bag of ice for a particular body part," Dr. Jonesco says. So if you've got a sore knee, you're probably better off trying direct compression with a bag of ice. And even if you have total-body soreness, you might still want to go for the bag of ice for one very important reason: "While they're the most efficient use of time (2 to 3 minutes), cryo chambers can set you back $50 to $100 a session," Dr. Jonesco says. "This may make sense when you're a professional athlete with unlimited resources and a busy schedule, but I don't recommend cryo chambers for most of us mortals."
So why is this method so popular? "Social media lets us look closer at the lives of elite athletes, including the ways they train and recover," Dr. Jonesco says. Take Lebron James as an example. "When he posted videos of himself undergoing cryotherapy treatment, every kid with basketball dreams thought, 'Well if Lebron does it, it must work, and I need that edge, too.'" Reiff also notes that recovery is overall a trend in sports and fitness, so it makes sense that recreational athletes are taking an interest in what's new in the space. (See: Why Stretching Is the New (Old) Fitness Trend People Are Trying)
Aside from the hit to your bank account, cryotherapy is pretty low risk. "Cryotherapy is safe when used as directed," Dr. Jonesco says. But he notes that excessive use or staying in the chamber for too long can lead to skin damage or hypothermia, so keep your session to the recommended time limit. "The biggest risk, in my opinion, is spending money on a treatment not proven to be superior to cheaper alternatives, like a bag of ice," he says.
In other words, cryotherapy may help you recover faster between workouts, but so can something you have right in your own freezer. Still, if it's something that interests you and you have the available cash, we say happy freezing!