My first cryotherapy session could be described as a scene from a science fiction novel. I was asked to strip down and was given socks, shoes, and gloves. The cryosauna machine, which looks similar to a stand-up tanning booth, was towering in the middle of a room. After I stepped into the cryosauna, I rang a bell and the attendant, Debra, came back into the room.
Then the real experience began.
To say I was not shocked by the sudden cold would be a lie. My head was above the chamber, so I could see around me at all times and I could exit if needed because nothing was locked. I was told that many first-timers cannot make it to a minute, let alone the designated three.
For me, the secret to endurance was listening to Debra’s voice as she explained what was happening to me, allowing me to concentrate more on her words than the cold. That said, it was a “dry” cold, and as strange as it might seem, it was tolerable.
Cold Hard Facts on Cryotherapy
Cryotherapy was originally developed in Japan in 1978 for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, and the benefits have been studied and refined in Europe since that time. Cryotherapy is now utilized in the United States, and with wonderful results.
Most cryosaunas uses liquid nitrogen, lowering the client’s skin temperature to about 30 to 50 degrees F in a period of two or three minutes. Liquid nitrogen is used to make the cold, but clients are not in direct contact with the gas. Our skin reacts to the cold, sending messages to the brain, and it stimulates regulatory functions of the body, assisting areas that might not be working to their fullest potential.
According to Excel Cryotherapy located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, “Cryotherapy is a hyper-cooling process that lowers a person’s skin temperature to approximately 30 degrees F for a period of up to three minutes by enveloping the body with extremely cold air at temperatures ranging from -100 F to -274 F. (Liquid nitrogen is used to cool the body, and reduces inflammation.)”
During this time, thermoreceptors in the skin send signals to the brain to send the blood to the core to maintain body temperature with a process called vasoconstriction. Toxins are flushed from peripheral tissues and blood is enriched with oxygen, enzymes, and nutrients. The body activates all of its natural healing abilities and releases endorphins for further benefit.
As the body warms up again, the enriched blood flows back through the body through a process called vasodilation. As a result, whole body cryotherapy is very effective for athletic recovery and muscle repair, reduction of chronic pain and inflammation, and an overall enhancement of health and wellness.
There are in fact two types of cryotherapy: whole body cooling and partial body cooling. I used a partial body cooling therapy at Excel Cryotherapy, where my head was out of the chamber. I experienced positive results.
However, because we have heating receptors in our chest and head, some argue that whole body cooling gives a greater autonomic response, with higher cellular activation. According to a study, partial body cooling gives a lesser autonomic response, with less cellular activation. Whole body does not use liquid nitrogen but is more of a very sophisticated smart fridge.
Next Health, located in Los Angeles, California, has a whole-body cryotherapy chamber. This chamber allows the head to be included in the therapy. You can also wear headphones and listen to music for three minutes or go in with a friend! According to Vanessa Kekina from Next Health, “The many benefits of cryotherapy include reduced inflammation, accelerated sports recovery, improved sleep, elevated mood, brain power/mental alertness and vigilance, as well as collagen and antioxidant synthesis.”
Whole body cryotherapy involves exposing your body to an extreme cold environment of -150 degrees F and less. This intense cooling induces a number of giant physiologic changes in your body. Initially, as the blood vessels constrict, blood moves away from the limbs and towards the vital organs of the body. This is a protective and natural measure that the body takes in response to extreme cold. In the process, several systems within the body are affected and it is here that the benefits begin.
The immune system increases the white blood cell count causing reduced inflammation and a positive, powerful immune system response. Circulation is improved and water weight is reduced as the circulatory system reacts. The endocrine system jumps into action with an endorphin and noradrenaline release and an increase of “feel good” hormones in the blood stream. A reduction in cortisol has been seen in blood sample studies as well as an increase in testosterone and DHEA. A cryotherapy session induces a total systemic response that offers many advantages: reduced pain, increased recovery, improved muscle strength and hormone production for example.
“The healing time is different for everyone,” adds Wendi Michelle, Vice President of Operations at Next Health. “Someone who is looking for energy and improved sleep will benefit more quickly than perhaps someone who is treating a condition … Someone who has been in pain for years and finally feels relief will consider this an instant therapy even if the pain returns.”
There are only a handful of whole-body cryotherapy locations in the U.S.
While most cryotherapy saunas use liquid nitrogen, and are easier to find, a plethora of benefits are experienced with both types of saunas.
And all of this healing can start to happen in three minutes, sometimes less. According to a pain study regarding patients with rheumatoid disease, cold therapy reduced pain significantly. When cryotherapy becomes regular practice, inflammation and chronic pain is reduced and joints work better.
According to Cryohealthcare, “Whole body Cryotherapy is very well tolerated and has minimal risks.
Here in the United States, cryotherapy has only been implemented in the past 10 years. It’s used for various conditions: from muscle recovery for athletes, to cancer treatment.
Chronic Medical Conditions
According to Polar Cryotherapy, “European medical studies have shown that Whole Body Cryotherapy can help alleviate the symptoms of chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune disorders, ankylosing spondylitis, ankylosing spondylosis, psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, dermatitis and osteoporosis. Studies in Europe have also shown that whole body cryotherapy is beneficial in the treatment of mood disorders, anxiety, and depression.”
“Cryotherapy induces a short duration temperature stress to the body,” explains Dimitris Tsoukalas, M.D., leading expert in the application of Metabolomics and Nutritional Medicine in chronic and autoimmune diseases, as well as the author of How To Live 150 Years In Health. The hormones released during stress — cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine — increase our ability to withstand pain, fatigue, and hunger. They also decrease inflammation and related symptoms.”
Dr. Tsoukalas goes on to state that appropriate responsiveness to cold, mental stress, physical strain, dehydration, fasting, etc. is a crucial prerequisite for a sense of well-being, adequate performance of tasks, and positive social interactions. He explains that a pioneering Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye first observed stress and defined it as ‘the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change.'”
When I first heard of cryotherapy, I hesitated. Could cold therapy really be beneficial? Yes, yes, and yes! I can’t believe I waited so long to stumble into this magnificent healing machine. I’ll tell you later what I personally experienced, but first, here are six ways cryotherapy can boost your health:
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1. Decreases Inflammation
I sought out cryotherapy because of a 10 year-old torn rotator cuff and a slap-tear, which is a detachment, or tear, of the upper portion of the cartilage rim surrounding the socket bone of the shoulder. For various reasons, I do not use medications and since I have tried various chiropractic, Chinese Medicine, and massage therapy treatments, this was next in line.
Ice, when applied to a specific area of the body, reduces inflammation, such as when you have a bruise. Cryotherapy, however, reduces inflammation throughout the body, so that healing can occur in more than one area at a time. If you have an injury on the arm and leg, for example, cryotherapy will automatically target these areas. Cryotherapy also stimulates the vagus nerve, reducing anxiety and fatigue. According to Mental Floss, the vagus nerve is literally the captain of your inner nerve center — the parasympathetic nervous system, to be specific. And like a good captain, it does a great job of overseeing a vast range of crucial functions, communicating nerve impulses to every organ in your body. New research has revealed that it may also be the missing link to treating chronic inflammation, and the beginning of an exciting new field of treatment that leaves medications behind. Stimulation of the vagus nerve also helps reduce anxiety and fatigue.
2. Increases Performance Levels
Many athletes use cryotherapy because the treatment can help them recover from their activity. Since joint and muscle strength is increased, athletes can sports-train sooner, improving outcomes. Because the muscles and tissues are not frozen, one can start exercising immediately. Enriched blood flows back through the body, through vasodilation. Unlike ice baths, muscles don’t need time to recover after cryotherapy.
3. Increased Metabolism
After a session of cryotherapy, it takes a lot of energy to reheat the body. During a three minute treatment, you burn approximately 500 to 800 calories. When skin is cooled to around 35 degrees F, it requires a lot of energy to reheat it to our regular body temperature.
4. Reduction Of Chronic Pain and Fatigue
For those that suffer from chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia or general body pain, cryotherapy reduces both. Some people experience a few hours of relief, while others enjoy a relief that lasts days, and even longer. Each individual is different, so results vary, but most participants feel that three minutes of cold is worth the hours of pain relief later. One study regarding fibromyalgia patients showed that after 15 sessions of cryotherapy, pain levels were improved.
5. Happiness Boost
Rather than reach out for antidepressants, many opt for cryotherapy instead. That’s because the procedure releases endorphins into the bloodstream, and one feels their mood increasing after a cryotherapy session. The endorphins interact with pain receptors, reducing pain perception. Cortisol levels are reduced, and one feels, well … happier.
6. Boosts Collagen
Debra told me a few more things about how with regular treatments, cryotherapy can help lessen the appearance of wrinkles, increasing the skin’s collagen. According to Restore Cryotherapy, “Routine cryotherapy treatments can help rejuvenate the collagen matrix, improving skin’s resilience and reducing the appearance of cellulite and fatty deposits at the skin’s surface.”
Debra stated that everyone’s body reacts differently to the treatment. Some people become energized, and some become very lethargic. I was somewhat in the middle, but I had more of a relaxed aura to me, and it was very pleasant.
Initially, my injured arm had much more range-of-motion, and that night, I slept better than I had in years. Throughout the afternoon, I went through periods of being warm and then cold, but it was all a pleasant experience. The following day my skin was red in places and my sinuses seemed to be clearer, which I attribute to the toxins being released in my body.
Several weeks later, I returned for three additional cryotherapy sessions. For me, the effects of the first cryotherapy treatment lasted about a week. It was explained to me that about two treatments a week for a month could provide effects lasting several months. All total, I have had four sessions of cryotherapy, and I definitely feel like my body has been re-set, hormonally speaking, and the muscles that were giving me pain feel better. Specifically, this pre-menopausal body has had her hormones reset, and I like the results.
Three minutes of freezing cold is worth the plethora of benefits, which also includes improved sleep, clearer skin, and improved range of motion in my injured shoulder. Keep your eye on the prize (better health) and anything is doable!
Katherine Darlington has had an interest in writing since childhood. Her stories, poetry, and articles have appeared in Grit, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Kota Press, History’s Women, five poetry anthologies and other publications. A native New Mexican, Katherine has been a massage therapist for over 19 years. Katherine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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