For decades, humans have gravitated towards using ice to treat pain. But gone are the days of ice-packs applied to injuries; now the approach is a more whole-body Cryotherapy experience. But, does this cool cure stand up to the heat? Let’s unpack this simple therapy.

This treatment encompasses a wide range of applications including Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) which involves being immersed in a chamber at chilly temperatures of up to -93°C. Derived from the Greek word ‘Krous,’ Cryo means ‘icy.’ Put it together with ‘therapy,’ and you have a treatment involving the application of ice. Traditionally, this takes the form of a cold-pack on an injury to constrict blood vessels, reduce blood flow and bring down pain, swelling and inflammation.

When it comes to icing, we can all agree, it lowers tissue temperatures, and also seems to soften ouch. This painkilling phenomenon may curb the speed of nerves firing, constrict arteries and veins and put a brake on blood flow. This impedes inflammation in the short-term, but even though experts have long supported the practice, it’s not clear if localised icing brings long-term benefits. Most of us have had a mole removed using Cryosurgery, but WBC is a different beast altogether. This therapy exposes the entire body to subzero temps; standing in a tank, wearing next to nothing for between 2-4 minutes. First practised in Japan in the late 1970s, the patient bathes in liquid nitrogen or refrigerated cold air; that’ll take your breath away.

There’s a lot of noise out there around what WBC can and can’t do. On the one hand, it’s fit to fight inflammation, reduce pain, expedite healing and weight loss, improve athleticism, sleep and slow ageing. There’s also whispers WBC redirects blood flow to essential organs, telling the body it’s in danger; boosting its immune system and metabolism. On the other hand, WBC could be another in a long line of ‘cool’ trends that will ultimately meet scientific discredit. The truth? Maybe somewhere in the middle.

From a pack of frozen peas to whole-body immersion – does this cool treatment do the trick? It’s been around for ages, but so far, scientists haven’t proved the efficacy of dealing with pain using ‘RICE’: rest, ice, compression and elevation. Strangely, the main effects of cold therapies may be brain-based. A 2014 study put 30 young men through a high-intensity muscle workout. Afterwards – they recovered in one of three 15-minute baths: cold water, body-temp water and body-temp water with fake ‘magic-soap.’ Those that bathed in the cold and ‘magic-soap’ baths experienced less soreness. Until now, scientific studies in this area have suffered from homogenous candidates and tiny sample sizes. But on the bright side, current lack of evidence doesn’t mean the benefits of WBC will never surface.

Like any treatment, Cryotherapy comes with perils such as frostbite, claustrophobia caused by enclosed-spaces and even suffocation. Elongated exposure to cold can also lead to hypothermia: a risky drop in body temp. This may slow brain, heart and breathing, increasing the danger of heart attack or causing confusion and memory loss. What is clear is WBC isn’t something to take lightly.

Candice Mattiske