Cold Temperature Health Benefits
We all know the benefit of applying ice to an injury or burn, or a cold compress to an aching head. Exposure to cold temperatures in humans has been found to be of value in many areas of health, from fat reduction (cryolipolysis) to improving survival in cardiac arrest and stroke.
Furthermore, cryotherapy clinics are popping up around the country for the treatment of such conditions as rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, injury, fatigue, and skin rejuvenation.
“The beneficial effects of cold as a therapeutic agent have been known for a long time, with ancient populations aware about the reinvigorating effects of cold water either taken orally or used for baths. The use of cold, mainly locally, still remains in our daily common activities,” write Giovanni Lombardi and colleagues in a recent review. “Forty years ago, following personal observations of Prof. Toshiro Yamauchi (who recognized that the combination of cold and physical exercise was beneficial for clinical outcomes of treatments received by his patients’, affected by rheumatoid arthritis, coming back from mountain localities after winter holidays), whole-body cryotherapy was introduced into clinical practice.”1
Cryotherapy Health Benefits
Cryotherapy clinics offer their patients brief (1-3 minutes) exposure to temperatures below minus 100 degrees Celsius. Patients wear gloves, socks, athletic shorts and tops, and sometimes masks covering the mouth and nose, and are supervised by clinic personnel. Unlike induced therapeutic hypothermia, patients are awake and alert.
A systematic review of six studies that included 257 rheumatoid arthritis patients treated with whole-body cryotherapy or local cryotherapy (applied to the afflicted area of the body) found a reduction in pain scores and 28-joint disease activity scores.2 The authors of the review recommended the inclusion of cryotherapy in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis to potentially lower the requirement for corticosteroid and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
Another review included 16 studies in total: 10 studies that examined the effects of cryotherapy on muscle damage induced by controlled exercise in a laboratory setting, and six studies that investigated damage induced during sports training. This review found a reduction in muscle pain in 80% of the laboratory studies that reported pain measurement. Variables involving athletic capacity and performance also improved in well over half of the studies that involved controlled exercise. “These results suggest that whole-body cryotherapy may improve recovery from muscle damage, with multiple exposures more consistently exhibiting improvements in recovery from pain, loss of muscle function, and markers of inflammation and damage,” the authors conclude.3
Cryotherapy Chamber Health Benefits
In a study in which 16 healthy men received whole-body cryotherapy followed by kinesiotherapy while 16 received kinesiotherapy alone, participants who received cryotherapy showed decreased oxidative stress and an increase in plasma total antioxidant status. “Our results prove that whole-body cryotherapy is a beneficial method which allows subjects who underwent kinesiotherapy or other physical exercise to decrease oxidative stress and keep the prooxidant-antioxidant balance at a safe level,” concluded authors Agata Stanek and colleagues.4
An unexpected benefit was observed in a study of young professional male athletes, which found a 24-hour elevation in postexercise testosterone following whole-body cryotherapy in comparison with no cryotherapy.5 This was also demonstrated in a separate study of rugby players who underwent a week of twice-daily cryotherapy sessions.6
In a trial of obese nonactive men, whole-body cryostimulation increased blood levels of irisin, a myokine released from the muscles during physical activity. Irisin helps transform white fat into brown fat, and brown fat burns energy to generate heat, even at rest. In this study, whole-body cryostimulation also lowered inflammation, as indicated by a decrease in C-reactive protein (CRP).7,8 Because of its ability to increase energy expenditure, irisin has gained interest as a potential treatment for type 2 diabetes and related disorders.
In women, two weeks of whole-body cryotherapy at minus 60 degrees Celsius improved symptoms related to restless legs syndrome, while exposure to a cold air chamber at minus 10 degrees Celsius failed to help. Local cryotherapy (applied to the legs) also improved quality of life as well as sleep quality.9
In women and men, just one cryotherapy session resulted in better ability to sit and reach compared to a control group, supporting the hypothesis that the treatment increases range of motion.10
For those of you who suffer from pain and inflammation but don’t live near a cryotherapy clinic or don’t like the idea of being exposed to extreme cold, cold mist shower therapy — which can be administered at home — has been shown to reduce pain and improve sleep among chronic inflammatory arthritis patients.11 For exercisers or athletes, cold water immersion of affected areas has proven to be helpful for muscle injury or fatigue.12 In one study, cold water immersion after the performance of knee exercises improved tissue oxygenation compared with no treatment, while lowering average heart rate and reducing muscle soreness.13
On a side note, while the body’s thermostat ensures that core temperatures are maintained at near normal in healthy humans, calorie restriction (a practice that involves lowering the number of calories consumed without inducing malnutrition) has been shown to slightly lower body temperature in rodents and rhesus monkeys.14 This may be a contributor to the ability of calorie restriction to extend life span in nearly every species in which it has been tested. Additionally, melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone released by the pineal gland in response to darkness, has been shown to lower body temperature in human subjects by 0.25-0.3 degrees Celsius at doses of 1 to 5 milligrams.15
Is Cryotherapy Safe?
It is recommended that anyone who wishes to avail themselves of the benefits of cryotherapy do so with the consent of their physician. The authors of the review quoted at the beginning of this post note that that the therapy needs to be administered using procedures that follow precise rules, under the supervision of skilled personnel. They conclude that “If these procedures are carefully followed, whole-body cryotherapy is absolutely safe.”
- Lombardi G et al. Front Physiol. 2017 May 2;8:258.
- Guillot X et al. Expert Rev Clin Immunol. 2014 Feb;10(2):281-94.
- Rose C et al. Int J Sports Med. 2017 Dec;38(14):1049-1060.
- Stanek A et al. Adv Clin Exp Med. 2016 Nov-Dec;25(6):1281-1291.
- Russell M et al. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Feb;31(2):415-421.
- Grasso D et al. J Biol Regul Homeost Agents. 2014 Apr-Jun;28(2):291-300.
- Dulian K et al. Cryobiology. 2015 Dec;71(3):398-404.
- Cannon B et al. Physiol Rev. 2004 Jan;84(1):277-359.
- Happe S et al. J Neurol Sci. 2016 Nov 15;370:7-12.
- De Nardi M et al. Cryobiology. 2015 Dec;71(3):511-3.
- Hinkka H et al. Scand J Rheumatol. 2017 May;46(3):206-209.
- Adamczyk JG et al. J Therm Biol. 2016 Aug;60:20-5.
- Yeung SS et al. Medicine (Baltimore). 2016 Jan;95(1):e2455.
- Lane MA et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1996 Apr 30;93(9):4159-64.
- Dawson D et al. J Pineal Res. 1996 May;20(4):192-7.