Jennifer Aniston, LeBron James, Alicia Keys and Mark Wahlberg and a number of other celebrities reportedly rave about the advantages of cryotherapy — whole body cryotherapy, to be exact.
Whole body cryotherapy, however, differs greatly from traditional cryotherapy. They differ so much, in fact, that while research supports the value of traditional cryotherapy, it casts serious doubt on the purported benefits of whole body cryotherapy. So, the safety and effectiveness of cryotherapy depends on what type of cryotherapy you’re talking about.
What is cryotherapy?
The Cleveland Clinic defines cryotherapy as the use of extreme cold to freeze and remove abnormal tissue. Doctors rely on cryotherapy as a treatment for a variety of skin conditions, such as warts, skin tags and age spots. They also employ cryotherapy to treat certain types of cancer, such as cervical, liver and prostate, and some precancerous skin conditions.
In some cases, cryotherapy might be called cryosurgery or cryoablation.
A health care professional generates the extreme cold with a substance like argon gas, liquid nitrogen or liquid nitrogen oxide.
For skin conditions, cryotherapy often is done using a cotton swab that’s been dipped into liquid nitrogen or a deviceA cryoprobe might also be used to treat a skin condition.
“Cryosurgery is a minimally invasive treatment. Compared to traditional surgery, it usually has less pain and bleeding and a lower risk of damaging healthy tissue near the abnormal cells,” the Cleveland Clinic explains.
The clinic outlines a few possible complications from cryotherapy procedures:
- Nerve damage.
- Skin infection.
- Bone fractures.
- Bleeding, cramping or pain around the cervix
Aside from skin conditions or cancer, cryotherapy also may be used to treat soft-tissue injuries (like a sprained ankle), tendinitis, swelling and other ailments often associated with participation in sports. In addition, it may help with recovery from certain kinds of surgery. This kind of cryotherapy involves methods such as applying ice packs and immersing yourself in a tub of icy cold water.
“Cryotherapy is widely applied and accepted as a beneficial treatment for soft-tissue injury and postoperative management. It is the one of the most effective interventions for pain management and swelling in acute sports injuries,” according to the Saudi Journal of Sports Medicine.
What is whole body cryotherapy?
Unlike traditional cryotherapy, whole body cryotherapy isn’t recognized as a medical treatment.
Whole body cryotherapy involves exposing your body to subzero temperatures for two to four minutes while you’re nearly naked, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Temperatures can exceed -200 degrees Fahrenheit. This sort of cryotherapy typically involves sitting or standing in an enclosed chamber.
Proponents tout that whole body cryotherapy can treat conditions such as:
- Rheumatoid arthritis.
- Multiple sclerosis.
- Sore muscles.
- Sore joints.
However, scientific studies haven’t definitively shown whole body cryotherapy supplies any of those benefits. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that it hasn’t cleared or approved any device for safe and effective treatment using whole body cryotherapy.
The FDA cautions that whole body cryotherapy can lead to complications such as asphyxiation, hypoxia (oxygen deficiency), frostbite, burns and eye injuries. In addition, the agency says, whole body cryotherapy might worsen an existing medical condition or even cause a new medical condition.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, whole body cryotherapy “is still unproven and could potentially bring risks, so if you are considering using the technology, it’s a good idea to discuss the decision with your doctor first.”