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Exploring the Efficacy of Cryotherapy: Unveiling Its Potential to Alleviate Pain

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So you've embarked on your fitness journey and find yourself wondering how to alleviate those post-workout muscle aches. How about stepping into a frigid room wearing only minimal clothing and enduring temperatures ranging from −100° C to −140° C (−148° F to −220° F)? Intriguing, huh? This is the essence of whole body cryotherapy (WBC), a treatment gaining popularity in recent years for sports injuries and various other conditions. But what exactly does it entail, and does it live up to the hype?

The Fascination with Whole Body Cryotherapy

WBC has managed to captivate a wide audience, including celebrities and professional athletes like Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Aniston, and LeBron James. However, many are still unfamiliar with this unconventional therapy. The concept originates from the observation that cold treatments like ice application or cold water immersion can alleviate inflamed, injured, or overused muscles. WBC takes this approach to the extreme, immersing the entire body in a super-chilled environment.

The Claimed Benefits of Whole Body Cryotherapy

Proponents of WBC attribute a multitude of advantages to this therapy. According to various websites promoting WBC, it may be beneficial for:

  • Recovering from sports injuries
  • Alleviating chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis
  • Enhancing athletic performance
  • Facilitating weight loss
  • Improving mood and reducing anxiety

These claims have yet to receive official approval from the FDA, prompting them to caution consumers against regarding WBC devices as medically approved treatments for specific conditions.

Does WBC Actually Work?

Now, the million-dollar question: does WBC truly deliver on its promises? Experts advise individuals to conduct their own research by exploring the medical literature. However, the available studies vary greatly, making it challenging to reach definitive conclusions. Factors such as temperature variances, treatment durations, and the diverse health statuses of participants further contribute to the complexity. Additionally, each study uses different criteria to assess treatment response, making it difficult to establish consistent outcomes.

A recent review of the evidence suggests that WBC may:

  • Lower skin or muscle temperatures, similar to other cryotherapy methods
  • Temporarily reduce soreness and enhance the perception of recovery after certain activities
  • Benefit individuals with adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder)
  • Have no significant impact on muscle damage caused by intense exercise

The Drawbacks of Whole Body Cryotherapy

While WBC is generally considered safe, precautions should be taken. Individuals with poorly controlled high blood pressure, major heart or lung diseases, poor circulation worsened by cold exposure, cold-triggered allergies, or neuropathy in their legs or feet, should avoid WBC. Reports of skin burns and irritations exist; however, these can be avoided through proper preparation.

Cost is another concern. Although initial visits may be discounted, a single WBC session can range from $20 to $80, with a full course of treatment potentially costing hundreds of dollars. Unfortunately, WBC is not typically covered by health insurance in the US.

The Verdict on Whole Body Cryotherapy

Given the current evidence, it remains uncertain whether WBC effectively prevents or treats specific conditions, accelerates recovery, or enhances athletic performance. Moreover, there is little scientific evidence supporting the notion that WBC surpasses the efficacy of simpler, more affordable cryotherapy options such as using ice packs.

Nevertheless, the lack of compelling evidence is unlikely to deter the popularity of WBC. As long as individuals perceive it as beneficial and can afford it, WBC will likely remain a prominent choice until the next "big thing" emerges.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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