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What is Cryotherapy, and How and Why it Works

Blood. Oxygen. Healing.

This article explains the origins, the process and the benefits of whole body cryotherapy, and answers the most frequently asked questions.

If you live in pain, and if the condition that causes it somehow involves inflammation, there may be NO BETTER TREATMENT for you to reduce it and to get your life back.

Many people don’t consider it because they “don’t like cold” or don’t want the out-of-pocket expense involved with it, but the benefits by far outweigh the slight discomfort involved or the cost of committing. The dry cold used in cryotherapy treatments is much more comfortable than anything involving cold water or ice. And most cryotherapy locations offer very affordable membership packages.

Whole body cryotherapy may be the world’s best kept secret against pain, as it’s the only treatment to initiate the powerful fight-or-flight response. See how it could help YOUR body recover and thrive again.

Origins of Cryoytherapy

Applications of cold (water, ice) to strengthen the immune system, to reduce inflammation and swelling and to minimize pain have been known for millennia.The term comes from two Greek words: cryo (cold) and therapeia (cure).

Until recently, the “cold cure” has been used intuitively, mainly in the form of cold plunges and ice packs. Athletes have used baths filled with ice for years. But i t is only the last decade that the exact mechanisms by which cold alleviates pain have become well understood.

Based on work of Japanese scientists in the mid 1970-s, we have learned that the benefits of cold on pain are in proportion to the temperature reduction achieved by the skin’s thermo-receptors. Our nervous system constantly evaluates the temperature of the world around us and adjusts our bodies accordingly. Brief, controlled applications of cold can cause the body to engage its most powerful healing systems, BUT all cold is not created equal. Ice, cold water and cold air help, but they have limitations in how much they can chill the skin’s thermo-receptors. It’s known now that the temperature and the speed matter.

Extreme cold (using the temperatures lower than those ever registered on earth and perceived by us as not survivable) was first utilized by Dr. Yamaguchi of Japan in 1978 – it appeared to significantly benefit his rheumatoid arthritis patients. In early 1980s, cryotherapy concept was brought to Europe, where it has been intensively studied and applied in sports medicine and various other disciplines ever since. In numerous European countries, whole body cryotherapy has been accepted as a medical treatment and has become an integral part of the country’s preventative and health care regimens.

In the US, whole body cryotherapy was only introduced in 2010. Cryosaunas or cryochambers in which treatments are provided are not FDA approved as medical devices, and cryotreatments cannot be offered as a remedy. At the same time, more and more health care practitioners, especially chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists and sports doctors join the worldwide whole body cryotherapy movement, and their clients report a wide range of improvements in health and wellbeing.

people doing cryotherapy

How is Whole Body Cryotherapy Better than Cold Water or Ice

Based on the findings about how the ambient temperature and the speed of skin cooling affect the reaction of the body, whole body cryotherapy in a cryosauna or cryochamber is the evolution of “just” cold therapy. It utilizes temperatures below -120° F and is much more effective than local applications of cold, muchmore efficient, beneficial and comfortable than whole body immersion in ice bath. It utilizes extra dry, extremely cold air for a short period of time, just 2 to 3 minutes, to trigger the most powerful self -protective and regenerativemechanisms of the human body.

Whole body cryotherapy represents the most effective means to date to engage these mechanisms called “fight or flight” – the reaction that no other treatment is capable of initiating. Done with the right timing and frequency, many health benefits can be obtained, including reductions in inflammation and pain.

In numerous small-scale studies, cryotherapy has been shown to reduce the circulating levels of inflammatory chemicals such as histamine and cytokines by strongly stimulating the thermoreceptors. It also improves circulation of healthy, nutrient rich blood to the tendons, muscles, ligaments and cartilage. This increase in blood can help these tissues regenerate and become stronger. Nerve pain has also been shown to be reduced by cryotherapy.

Commonly reported improvements include:

  • Reduction in chronic pain
  • Decreased joint swelling
  • Less morning stiffness
  • Less pain from movement
  • Less need for pain medication
  • Greater stability of joints
  • Better spinal alignment
  • Quicker resolution of muscle spasms

Why Whole Body Cryotherapyis NOT Just an “Ice Bath on Steroids”, but a Completely Different Treatment

The human body is designed to take care of itself and is the best healer, provided that the respective built-in protective mechanisms get initiated.

The body’s reaction to low temperatures while submerged in an ice bath (40-45 °F) is radically different from its reaction to cryo temperatures (below -120 °F) in a cryosauna or cryochamber. The key to this difference is the temperature of the environment, the skin surface temperature, and the speed of the reduction of the skin surface temperature.

Tolerable cold makes the body to react slowly and to send more blood to the area being cooled to offset the cold impact. In an ice bath, the temperature can only reach 40-45 °F while the temperature in a cryosauna can go as low as -270 °F. This means that skin surface temperature in the wet, up to 15 min long, often painful ice bath can only reach 40 °F, while skin surface temperature in cryosauna goes down to 34 °F in just seconds, and the total length of time the skin is exposed to the low temperature environment (which is dry, thus invigorating rather than painful) never exceeds 3 minutes.

In an ice bath, the body attempts to fight the penetrating cold by warming blood in its core and sending it to the peripheral tissues. While in an ice bath, the body is struggling with actual, unrelenting physical cold, not just signals from the skin cold sensors. Blood begins cooling as it nears the skin surface, and its return to the core begins to decrease the body’s core temperature, as well. Eventually there is not enough heat produced, and the body approaches the zone of real risk of dying from hypothermia. In the process, the muscles temporarily lose capacity. Muscle tissue then needs time to return to normal, which requires the body to rest. The small benefit of a temporary numbing effect for perceived reduction of pain and inflammation is far outweighed by the potentially damaging effects of the ice bath.

In contrast, in a cryosauna, the temperature of the air surrounding the body is too low to be perceived as normal, so the most powerful protective mechanisms get triggered immediately. Vasoconstriction of peripheral tissues takes place – the body sends blood from the skin surface, muscles, and surrounding joint space to the core to protect core temperature. For as long as the exposure to the extremely cold temperature continues, the body continues to circulate blood between the cardiovascular system and the vital organs in a continuous loop. Core temperature stays intact, and the enhanced blood flow in a shorter circle and under higher pressure supplies all organs with more oxygen, nutrients, and enzymes. Besides, cryosauna does not freeze muscles or any other tissue. It only creates a powerful illusion of freezing.

Once the participant exits the cryosauna, the body immediately begins vasodilation, returning the blood to peripheral tissues, improving their blood supply and removing toxins. The blood gets flushed back to the skin and more remote areas, and the improved blood flow is beneficial for the entire body. Also, the blood flow back to the peripheral tissues warms the muscles and makes the body feel energized.

You May Ask:

How can a human being stand the temperatures below -120 °F?
In a long term, it could not, as the cold would damage the tissue. This is the reason why cryosauna treatment needs to be so short. The length of the treatment has been established to get the skin temperature down to not less than 34 F. This way, frostbite does not happen, while the body thinks it is freezing and mobilizes all its resources to stay alive. 3 min treatment in cryosauna is much more effective and tolerable than taking a cold shower or sitting in an ice bath.

Does cryosauna treatment hurt?
No, it does not. Even though the temperatures used are extremely low, the air that circulates around the body inside cryosauna is completely dry. It makes the treatment surprisingly comfortable, much better than “wet cold” created by a cold shower or a plunge in ice-cold water. There is no actual freezing involved, no tissue gets damaged, and the chill that lasts for less than 3 minutes causes slight shivering, at most. Most people never do, while some are more cold-sensitive than the others. It is important to understand that cryosauna user will never be left alone, and the treatment could be stopped any moment if the cold feels too much. Many people start with a shorter first treatment to get used to it, but, in many cases, whole body cryotherapy is used even by people who “hate cold”.

Can one catch a cold from the effects of cryosauna?
No. The cryo session will enhance the blood flow and cause a short-term increase of the systolic blood pressure. Body temperature may go slightly up for a short period of time, but it will return to normal soon after the treatment is over. Actually, the stimulation of the immune system can help decrease the severity and frequency of future colds and susceptibility to the flu.

What to expect from the cryosauna treatment?
Cryosaunas and cryochambers use either mixed with air nitrogen vapor or just a flow of cold air to lower the user’s skin surface temperature to 34°-40 °F for up to 3 min. By getting in touch with the extremely cold environment, cold receptors located on the skin send powerful signals to the brain to turn on the protection mode. Reduction of the skin temperature serves as a stimulant to all regulatory functions of the body. It also engages the areas that may not be performing to their fullest potential. So, while the exposed to the cold human body feels the cryo chill and, maybe, slight tingling of the skin, it does its best to make sure all vital functions are sustained – blood vessel constriction on the surface drives blood to the core, systolic blood pressure increases, and all organs receive more oxygen and nutrients. As soon as the treatment is over, blood rushes back to the peripheral tissues and delivers more oxygen and nutrients there. The body feels warm and energized. Many have reported immediate reduction of aches and pains, and the released endorphins improve mood. The immediate effects can last for several hours, while the intangible improvements accumulate gradually. To achieve sustainable results, just one cryosauna treatment will never be enough.

Why is it necessary to take a cryosauna treatment undressed?
Since cryotherapy relies on the body’s reaction to cold, it is essential that skin surface with its cold sensors is maximally exposed to the surrounding extreme temperatures. Every piece of cloth that is left on reduces effectiveness of the treatment. There are just a few exceptions: feet and, particularly, toes; fingertips; and genitalia in men. These areas are simply too sensitive to cold and could not stand it for the required 3 minutes. For this reason, men are required to wear briefs or other cotton protection, and everybody must have thick natural material socks and gloves to cover toes and fingertips.

Why are socks and gloves required?
Toes and fingertips have an extremely high concentration of nerve endings that make them more cold-sensitive than other parts of the body. In addition, while in cryosauna, the body pulls the blood away from the extremities and into the core, so the extremities must have extra protection. Both socks and gloves shall be completely dry, thick and natural (preferably, cotton or wool).

Is there a need for a shower before and/or after the procedure?
No. This procedure requires the skin and everything on it to be completely dry (no water, sweat, body lotions, creams, or oils that, if used, should be wiped off by a dry towel before stepping into the cryosauna). Perspiration or any other secretion is not involved in the process.Damp socks or underwear are not permitted, either, as any residual moisture will freeze and lead to frostbites.

Isn’t nitrogen dangerous to human beings?
No, it is not. Nitrogen is a non-toxic, natural gas that we constantly breathe –only 16% of the air is oxygen, while 78% is nitrogen! If one inhales too much nitrogen, it can cause slight dizziness or even passing out, but nitrogen-cooled cryosaunas prevent it from happening, as client’s head is outside during the treatment, while more concentrated cold nitrogen vapor that is heavier than air stays inside the cryosauna cabin. To create the required cold, treatment providers receive nitrogen in its liquid form and under low pressure of 22 psi. It is neither flammable nor explosive. The specially designed cylinders prevent the extremely cold liquid from spilling, and the treatment equipment is built to make contact between client’s skin and liquid nitrogen impossible. Therefore, all risks are eliminated.

Is it ok to be active or exercise right before or after a cryosauna treatment?
Yes! It is completely safe, and beneficial, either way. A cryosauna treatment before a physical activity may lead to higher pain tolerance, more energy, greater flexibility, and better endurance. Cryo treatment after a workout will help to reduce inflammation and muscle soreness, lead to fuller relaxation and deeper sleep at night. Even though it is not recommended to do more than one treatment per day, as it could be too much stimulation and stress for the body, there can be exceptions. For example, marathon runners often do two treatments, before and after, on the day of the race.

Is it ok to eat before a cryo-session?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, many clients have reported being able to tolerate the cold much better after having eaten within the past few hours before their treatment, while having a treatment before breakfast has led to slight dizziness during the session.

How often should cryosauna be used?
It is recommended to commit to at least 10 cryotreatments in the first 30 days for optimal results. Some people will need more, while some conditions will be better helped by maximum frequency (5-7 treatments per week). People suffering from pain may find more relief in more concentrated treatments for a longer period, until a remarkable improvement is achieved. In a post-surgery or post-injury stage, even a few consecutive treatments could substantially reduce the inflammation and swelling. A cryo technician will be happy to help customize a treatment plan, depending on the desired results.

Is there a need for seeing a doctor before the first treatment?
In most cases, the answer is NO. Cryotherapy is not a medical treatment, it just enhances the body’s embedded protective and recovery mechanisms. There have been cases when doctors advise against trying cryotherapy, referring to lack of FDA approval or seeing their own disadvantage in recommending any treatments on a side.
It is important to remember that cryosauna is a “wellness for all” type of equipment that has proven to deliver many benefits, including but not limited to enhanced recovery through improved blood circulation, reduced inflammation, swelling, and pain, although it was not designed to heal or cure any particular health condition.
Before the first treatment, every user must receive an explanation of contraindications and sign a liability waiver. If you have high blood pressure or weakened cardiovascular system, you need to disclose the risks, and may want to consult with your primary care physician before engaging.

Who should NOT use whole body cryotherapy?
Individuals with the following conditions are strongly advised not to use whole body cryotheraphy, as it may cause health-related issues:

  • Severe hypertension (BP>180/100)
  • Cardiovascular disorders and recent cardiovascular surgeries
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Uncontrolled seizures
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Cancers or tumors
  • Acute infections
  • Bleeding disorders
  • Cold allergies
  • Fever

Think of it this way: whole body cryotherapy enhances blood circulation and briefly increases systolic blood pressure. Most people benefit from it and are not in any kind of risk, but, in some cases, blood circulation improvement may be unwanted. For example, it may help spread a local infection.
It is recommended not to use cryotherapy during pregnancy due to potential risks that have never been evaluated.

Are there age restrictions?
Although the cryosauna produces completely natural results, the cabins are only designed for an adult-sized body. If height is sufficient, age does not matter, as long as the client is able to move enough to enter the cryosauna cabin and to stand unsupported for up to 3 minutes.

Can whole body cryotherapy be used by claustrophobic people?
Yes, it can. If you are afraid of close spaces, choose a head-outside cryosauna rather than a walk-in cryochamber. In nitrogen-cooled cryosaunas, client’s head is above the edge of the cabin during the treatment, and the operator is always there, observing, communicating and ready to help, if necessary. Also, the door is never locked, and the treatment can be stopped any moment.

To conclude, have you ever counted how much living in pain costs you?
In average, one person in the US who suffers from chronic pain spends about $6,000 per year on pain-related health care. Another $6,000, or more, are lost because of lower productivity, not to mention the toll that the pain takes emotionally.
Most pain medications are designed to mask symptoms, not to eliminate the cause.
If the cause is inflammation of any kind, cryotherapy and some other nature-based holistic practices may be your best bet to be able to live pain free again.

joint inflamation vs a relieved person


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