Cryotherapy: Ice Bath on Steroids
If you like combat sports, you are probably following the top athletes in the world of mma, muay thai bjj or wrestling on some form of social media. In this case, you are familiar with the following sight: the athlete, at the end of a workout, sitting down in a bathtub filled with ice cubes to enhance recovery. However, this sight becomes rarer and rarer. Reason being that most athletes have replaced the ice bath with another form of cold therapy: cryotherapy. So what exactly is cryotherapy and is it really such a miracle recovery tool?
Instead of immersing oneself for a couple of minutes in a tub filled with ice cubes, the person enters a cabin that produces dry air, cooled down to -150° C. A cryotherapy session lasts only for about 2 to 3 minutes, in contrast to the 15 minutes an ice bath lasts. So how can such extreme cold benefit the body? There are two main mechanisms at play in the body.
The extreme cold makes the body go into survival mode. The blood is transported quickly to the organs. Supposedly, during this process toxins and lactic acid are filtered out of the blood. At the same time, the blood is being enriched with enzymes, nutrients and oxygen. Later, the enriched blood is transported back to the other parts of the body. Another peculiar mechanism started by the cold, is hormesis. The cold stresses the body in a hormetic manner, just like fasting and exercise, triggering cellular responses in the body that exceed what is needed to compensate for the damage done by the stress. To compensate for the damage the body releases cold shock proteins, norepinephrine and cytotoxic T lymphocytes.
So how do these mechanisms translate into effects that are beneficial for athletes?
The idea that cryotherapy reduces inflammation, seems to be supported by research. Most likely, one of the driving factors behind this reduction is the effect of cryotherapy on norepinephrine. Norepinephrine inhibits pro inflammatory processes.
A study performed on a group of endurance athletes found that cryotherapy does improve recovery significantly. This paper suggests that the oxygenation of the blood during cryotherapy, and so the muscles as well, might be responsible for the enhanced recovery.
Less pain We've seen earlier that there is a good body of evidence of the anti-inflammatory properties of cryotherapy. Since inflammation is a frequent reason for pain in athletes, we would expect that cryotherapy would reduce perceived pain. However, different studies give different results. There is no consensus on the pain-relieving aspects of cryotherapy.
Enhanced mood Being an athlete who has to perform can be very stressful. And more so for combat athletes who regularly face an opponent whose purpose is to physically hurt you. Excess stress, anxiety and low moods can be disastrous for the athletes' performance and quality of life in general.
Because of its effect on norepinephrine, cryotherapy affects the brain and mood as well. Norepinephrine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is positively correlated with attention, focus and positive mood. We've seen earlier that cryotherapy increases norepinephrine in the body. So it does not come as a surprise that the limited scientific research that has been done on this topic, has confirmed that cryotherapy can be helpful for depression, anxiety.
Faster metabolism When an athlete has issues with weight gain, cryotherapy comes in handy as well. Cryotherapy has been shown to increase metabolism and burn calories up to 8 hours after the therapy session. As a reaction to the extreme cold, the body will go through a process called thermogenesis. In order to warm up, the muscles will start involuntary contracting, better known as shivering. During this process, the body burns many calories. However, there does not seem to be any sound scientific research on just how many calories a person burns in response to cryotherapy. Many cryotherapy spas claim a person will burn 500 to 800 calories as a result of a session, but I would take this claim with a grain of salt.
Cryotherapy seems to be a promising recovery tool for professional athletes. There is enough scientific evidence to assume that the therapy helps with: reducing inflammation, speed up metabolism and enhance mood and muscle recovery. If done correctly, under the supervision of a professional, cryotherapy is perfectly safe.
So you could argue: why not try it out a couple of times and see if I feel better? Well, the big downside to the therapy is the price. A single session easily costs 80 dollars. On top of that, many professionals argue that you have to undergo the therapy a couple of times to get all the benefits. For recreational practitioners, 400 dollars is maybe a bit much to try it out. If not, go for it!