Cold Therapy For Recovery – Which One?

By October 16, 2016Health & Fitness

I’m sure almost all of you reading this have grabbed a frozen bag of peas or an ice pack from the freezer for a sprained ankle at some point during your life. Many of you probably also understand the basic concept behind this aid, such as reduced inflammation and pain. This standard remedial practice used for sporting injuries and everyday niggles has stood the test of time due to its scientific backings and therapeutic relief. It is quite common in mainstream media these days that you will see professional athletes submerging themselves into the cold ocean water or a grueling bath full of ice blocks to support recovery.

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First it started off as a way of alleviating a swollen joint, and then people began to recognise the increased benefit of hydrotherapy such as an ice bath. Only recently we are beginning to see the experimentation with whole body cryotherapy chambers by well-known athletes such as Christiano Ronaldo and Floyd Mayweather Jr.

So what exactly is cryotherapy and how different is it compared to traditional cold therapy?

Cryotherapy was initially developed in Japan around 1980 to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis and inflammation. The cryosauna is cooled through the use of liquid nitrogen. You can spend between 1-3 minutes in the chamber in temperatures up to -170˚C. Scientifically speaking there has not been enough studies done on cryotherapy to make any sort of concrete claims or statements. This is primarily due to it being relatively new within the health and fitness industry. In saying this, cryotherapy and cold-water immersion (CWI) essentially produce the same hormonal response in the body. The main purpose of this blog will then be to look at the benefits, similarities and also the differences between cold-water immersion and whole body cryotherapy to help draw upon a conclusion, or at least a well thought out assessment based on the information we have at hand.

As previously stated, cold therapy is well known to decrease inflammation. This is due to the vasoconstriction (constriction of blood vessels) within the blood vessels, therefore increasing our body’s ability to remove excess heat from the body. Now when we plunge ourselves into these cold temperatures our body responds by producing norepinephrine, which when released acutely increases vasoconstriction. This neurotransmitter not only inhibits inflammatory pathways, it is also shown to increase vigilance, focus, attention and mood. Norepinephrine has also been found to have positive effects on pain relief, metabolism and general immunity. So if cold water immersion and cryotherapy seem to share similar, if not the same physiological responses, than what is the main difference?

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The two main differences between the two are the form of contact (thermal conductivity) and the length of exposure. Obviously being surrounded by cold water is going to feel different in comparison to the cold air alternative of the cryo. The other obvious difference is the temperature disparity. In an ice bath you are typically going to be in contact with water at around 15˚C, whereas in the cryotherapy chamber the temperatures reach up to -170˚C. Therefore you can spend a longer duration in an ice bath in comparison to a cryo machine.

Now that I have outlined the various similarities between cold-water immersion and cryotherapy, my next angle of questioning is…can you achieve the same physiological responses from a standard 10 minute ice bath compared to a 3 minute cryotherapy session? Maybe, maybe not. Studies comparing the physiological responses seem to show consistent and/or similar physiological responses between cold-water immersion and whole body cryotherapy although further studies need to be undertaken. Therefore it seems that it is best to form your own opinions on the matter and the only way to do this is by trying it out for yourself. Here is my personal analysis of the two treatments.

                 Cold Water Immersion                 Whole Body Cryotherapy
Pros Cons Pros Cons
  • Faster Recovery
  • Decreased Inflammation
  • Pain Relief
  • Endorphin Release
  • Availability

 

 

  • Uncomfortable
  • Inconvenient
  • Impractical
  • Difficult to achieve full body submersion

 

 

  • Faster Recovery
  • Decreased Inflammation
  • Time effective
  • Comfort
  • Endorphin Release

 

 

  • Affordability
  • Accessibility

 

 

 

 

 

 

The three aspects that stood out to me were comfort, time efficiency and feelings of revitalization. I have found my cryotherapy sessions to be rather comforting which is probably due to the short duration. I also felt refreshed and alert immediately after my 3 minutes were up. Now I understand that my account of feeling revitalized sounds like pseudoscience, but I genuinely felt fantastic after the cryo. Not just immediately after but I seemed to feel noticeably different that night and the day after. Now maybe this is a placebo effect, but largely I am just listening to what my body is telling me and how it is responding, which is essentially what we do when we experiment with various exercises and rep schemes in the gym. Don’t just take my word for it though; speak to someone who has had experience with a cryotherapy chamber to gain a better understanding.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Exposing the body to any sort of cold therapy for a controlled period of time will yield some sort of positive effect on the body. Cryotherapy research is currently rather preliminary, so whilst we wait for additional scientific research, my advice to those reading this is to try it out for yourself and utilize it for recovery from your training. Try cryotherapy over a couple of weeks (e.g. once or twice a week for three weeks) and record how you feel and recover post session.

P.S. I hear Perform 360 in Enoggera offer affordable bundle deals for members and non-members to utilise their cryotherapy chamber.

Thanks for Reading

Zach Maggs

 

* Important to note – allow at least an hour before undertaking a cryotherapy session to avoid being wet (sweat) and also allow the body to naturally recover from metabolic and mechanical stress.