Cryotherapy; What Is It And Why Are People Doing It?
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Photos provided by Quantum Cryogenics
Thirty years ago, if your friend had turned around to you and said ‘I’m just off to lie nearly naked in a coffin-like contraption to improve my tan’, we’d have thought them a little nutty. Today, tanning beds and tanning salons are a part of every day society with most cities and many towns having a Consol or its equivalent. Will the same be true for cryotherapy or is it just the latest fad for the rich and slightly nutty?
Cryotherapy for dummies
I have to include myself in the above category; this one took some research. I’ve got to be honest, when I first read the press release on Grow’s website announcing the world’s first British designed and manufactured cryotherapy chamber right here in Devon, I mistook cryotherapy for cryogenics and was therefore thoroughly confused. Although both involve some serious sub-zero temperatures, there is of course the fundamental difference that cryotherapy engages with patients who are still alive.
First developed in Japan, the therapy arrived in Europe in the 80s. In Poland, it is used to treat many conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, sleep disorders and depression.
There are two major forms of cryotherapy; whole body and localised. Whole body is the more popular, commercialised form whereby the user is plunged into temperatures of around -130 degrees Celsius for up to three minutes. Subjecting the whole human body to these temperatures cools the skin to around fifteen degrees Celsius, setting off a range of responses in the body. These can include the release of endorphins and the reduction of inflammation and numbing of pain.
Localised cryotherapy is used by the NHS to treat skin conditions and cancer cells. Cancer Research UK explains:
“A wide variety of superficial benign (non-cancerous) lesions can be treated with cryotherapy, but it is most commonly used to remove actinic keratoses: an area of sun-damaged skin found predominantly on sun-exposed parts of the body.
“It is a local treatment, which means it only treats the area where you have treatment. It doesn’t treat cancer cells in other parts of the body. After the treatment the body’s immune system gets rid of the dead tissue over a few weeks.” (Huffington Post)
Who uses whole body cryotherapy?
A number of well-known athletes are said to advocate cryotherapy. Big names include Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Cristiano Ronaldo. A number of premiere league football clubs now also have their own whole body cryotherapy chambers. In addition, a number of celebrities are said to endorse the treatment, including Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Aniston, Daniel Craig and Gary Barlow.
The big question: does it work?
There is much debate surrounding the supposed claims of whole body cryotherapy. Proponents say that it can help to alleviate muscle and joint pain, promote weight loss, and provide anti-ageing benefits for your skin. Unfortunately, there is little scientific evidence to back these claims as cryotherapy is a treatment that is still in its relative infancy. Sports injury analyst Michael A Gleiber explains:
“Cryotherapy is similar to the concept of applying an ice pack to a painful muscle or joint, but on a larger scale. Ice packs can certainly be helpful in reducing inflammation, but there isn’t currently any conclusive scientific evidence to prove that full-body cryotherapy works better.”
David Thornton-Wood, Co-founder of Quantum Cryotherapy, a new venture from Devon-based family business Quantum Cryogenics maintains that there is “a growing interest in whole body cryotherapy”. He feels that their unique chamber design, CryoQube, provides what Quantum Cryotherapy believes is “really needed”.
Ian Saunders, co-founder of CryoAction, a UK company that supplies many top rugby and football teams with cryotherapy facilities, explained:
“It helps recovery and rehabilitation processes. Vasoconstriction reduces blood flow to the extremities, which reduces inflammation around soft-tissue injuries, stopping them progressing. The release of adrenalin relieves pain and generates the feelings of exhilaration that players report.” (The Guardian)
A small-scale German study conducted in 2015 found endurance athletes recovered more quickly and were able to perform better in the second of two running tests separated by an hour if they underwent whole-body cryotherapy in between.
However, a Cochrane review pooled the results of 64 physically active adults and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support its use to relieve muscle soreness after exercise. Dr Joseph Costello, lead author of the Cochrane review and senior lecturer in exercise physiology at the University of Portsmouth said:
“We saw some potential in the initial evidence of beneficial effects, but until more evidence and better-quality studies are published, we can’t say for sure whether it is effective or not.”
There is research that suggests whole body cryotherapy reduces levels of inflammation markers and the stress hormone cortisol, while increasing testosterone, but this has been contradicted by further studies.
Feeling any wiser?
It is clear from the contradictory research that the scientific and medical jury is still out on whole body cryotherapy. There do not appear to be any major detriments caused by the therapy but equally, the benefits seem uncertain.
Dr Costello also pointed out the importance of the individual’s state of mind before engaging in the therapy. He explained:
“Even if whole-body cryotherapy isn’t having any direct physiological impact, someone who believes it is doing so might experience a powerful placebo effect that could be beneficial to recovery.”
Dr Costello, along with other experts, remains open-minded about the therapy’s powers pending further research. He did not rule out the advantages for highly trained elite athletes, saying:
“Interventions such as cryotherapy are 1%-ers that elite athletes, for whom such margins are important, might want to explore. Recreational athletes might be better focusing on the 99%-ers – rest, rehydration, refuelling and allowing the appropriate time to repair.”