It might seem like a recent technological breakthrough, but cryotherapy, the process of exposing your body to very cold temperatures, is a tried-and-true treatment as old as time.
Seriously: the first time you rolled your ankle and your parents told you to hold a pack of frozen peas to it, you were getting a mini-cryotherapy session in!
And, if you’ve ever had the unpleasant experience of dunking yourself into an ice bath, you already have first-hand experience at how this ice-cold technique (while uncomfortable) can help you come back stronger as an athlete.
Cryotherapy (which literally translates to “cold therapy”) is just what it sounds like – exposure to the cold for a short amount of time. It can be done in a ton of ways, from targeting problem areas with your standard icepack to whole-body cryotherapy with ice baths.
Now, we even have cryotherapy chambers – machines that can get down to a teeth-chattering -300ºF – that have taken whole-body cryotherapy to new levels and have been booming in popularity in the past couple of years.
It might seem like just the latest hype in sports recovery, but science is proving that there are some pretty interesting benefits of “putting some ice on it,” especially for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
Let’s get into them!
Benefits of Cryotherapy
Relieves muscle pain
One of the biggest benefits of cold exposure, especially if you’re an athlete, is that it can help relieve pain (and if you’ve ever “iced” your sore muscles, you already know this to be true). Just like holding an ice pack on your injured or overworked muscles can give you temporary relief, more advanced versions of cryotherapy is proving promising for giving your muscles some much-needed pain management after heavy workouts or intense sports.
This works a couple of different ways: cold exposure slows down blood circulation to the affected area, which can help minimize swelling. The cold also works as a local anesthetic to numb you from the pain.
There’s enough evidence from clinical studies to prove that pain relief follows cryotherapy sessions [*]. And the pain relief can go beyond athletic wear-and-tear, too – there are some studies that show that whole-body cryotherapy can even help temporarily relieve pain that comes from chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and chronic back pain! [*]
Reduces recovery time
On a related note, many people choose to use cryotherapy as a method to help speed up recovery after sports-related injuries.
In addition to the pain-relieving qualities mentioned above, cryotherapy can also help by reducing inflammation, which often comes after the initial injury of soft tissues. The icy response can slow down the rate of metabolism at the injury site, making it easier for your body to recover instead of getting worse. [*]
Might give your testosterone a boost
Testosterone is a big hormone for athletes: not only does it help you to maintain high levels of lean muscle mass, but it can also enhance your energy levels and give you the motivation you need to perform at your best. Not to mention, it can also play a pretty big role in leaning out and staying lean.
It turns out that exposure to freezing temperatures with whole-body cryotherapy might play a role in giving your testosterone production a boost, making it a great and natural way to increase this crucial hormone.
One study found that sprinters who were put in a cryo-chamber twenty minutes after their exercise showed a 28% increase in testosterone for the upcoming 24 hours! [*]
Speaking of hormones …
The “shock” from jumping into a cold chamber might actually be good for your mental health. Studies have shown that cryotherapy can increase the levels of several hormones including adrenaline and endorphins, which are “feel-good” hormones that help to regulate your mood. In fact, there are even suggestions that cryotherapy might have a place in helping to treat mood disorders like depression and anxiety. [*]
And here’s something even more interesting: in addition to increasing testosterone, adrenaline, and endorphins, some research is showing that it can also causes some dips in your cortisol levels, which are the hormones that control your stress response. [*] High cortisol levels have been associated with poorer athletic performance, so hopping into a cryotherapy chamber might be a good idea for anyone looking to perform at their best.
Could make you an overall-better athlete
It gets even better: in addition to helping you to recover afterward, it also looks like using cryotherapy as part of your preparation beforehand can actually help you become a better athlete.
There’s evidence to suggest that cryotherapy can elicit a post-activation potentiation response – in other words, this simply means that you see a short-term boost in power and performance in your sport.
A study done on elite tennis players found that they saw a 7% increase in their shot speed and accuracy after participating in regular cryotherapy. [*] This could be due to several different factors, so there’s more research to be done here, but one promising theory is that athletes are able to have a higher power output when they aren’t experiencing pain – no surprises there.
One lesser-known benefit of cryotherapy is its positive effect on your flexibility, which a lot of us tend to overlook until it’s too late. Having a good range of motion is important for performance in any sport, plus it can help to prevent injuries.
Cryotherapy is great at decreasing your neural activation, which is great news for increasing your flexibility. In fact, it’s so effective that you may be able to see some improvements in your stretch capabilities right away. One study found that participants were able to increase their range of motion after just one 150-second cryotherapy session [*].
Besides the obvious benefits for recovery and improved performance as an athlete, cryotherapy also has other health applications. For example, some studies are suggesting that its anti-inflammatory effects could be used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. [*]
It’s the cold hard truth: cryotherapy might sound like just another new “trend,” but many of its benefits are time-tested and backed by science! So whether you’re looking to amp up your performance, recover more quickly, or are thinking about applications beyond your athletic abilities, this ice-cold treatment might be the answer.
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