Cryotherapy, not to be confused with cryogenics, involves short-term exposure to sub-zero temperatures, and is used by athletes to reduce pain, improve recovery time, and sometimes in itself for pain relief therapy with non-athletes like the rest of us. There are risks: skin and blood vessels that are hit with temperatures of 50 degrees Fahrenheit or below can often suffer nerve and tissue damage,according to the University of Texas, which is now looking into the benefits and problems associated with the therapy.
Last year, a woman died in cryotherapy chamber after using it unsupervised -- demonstrating the very real risks of low-temperature exposure. The University of Texas says that between 1,500 and 2,000 injuries happen each year due to the therapy. The research has already picked up a four-year, $1.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, while establishing the "first formal protocols for effective and safe use of cold therapy", as well as a new cryotherapy device that minimizes potential side effects.
According to Joseph Costello, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Sport and Exercise Science at University of Portsmouth, there have not been any studies directly comparing cryotherapy with ice water baths. "There is not enough evidence to say whether cryotherapy is effective or is not effective for athletic recovery and muscle soreness," said Costello, in a report by CNN. It's usually administered in a cylindrical tank or a small sealed room, with air temperatures dropping to between -166 and -319 degrees Fahrenheit. There could also be a biological tradeoff for anyone that uses it, Costello adds: "To increase muscle size, you need muscle damage and repair; that's just the body's natural regeneration process. However, if cold water or (cryotherapy) blunt the inflammatory response, you may not get [that])."
Researchers will be looking at how test subjects' blood flow is affected by the cryotherapy, as well as introducing antioxidants and substances that block nerve responses and constrict blood vessels: in short, the scientists are testing out several things. Anne Bavier, Dean at the College of Nursing and Health Innovation, reiterates the current lack of knowledge regarding the treatment: "It is striking that there are currently no protocols for the use of cryotherapy devices despite awareness of risks to patients."
"This valuable work will provide the knowledge and new technologies needed to ensure patient safety while providing the benefits that cooling treatments have been known for since the time of Hippocrates."