Have you tried whole-body cryotherapy, where you stand in a chamber with extremely cold temperatures for a few minutes? In this video, I discuss cryotherapy and whether it might be helpful for recovery from sports and exercise.

Please understand, in this video, I am not giving you medical advice. This is meant for general information and educational purposes only.

What is whole body cryotherapy?

For decades, different cryotherapies, like cold-water immersions (cold baths) and ice packs – have been used to improve recovery from exercise and sports to cope with fatigue and/or delayed-onset muscle soreness.

The theory behind cold therapy’s potential benefits for recovery after exercise is predominantly attributed to its vasoconstrictive effect, which reduces inflammation through a decrease of the cell metabolism.

Current research on cryotherapy for recovery

A 2015 meta-analysis using 27 studies revealed that cooling and especially cold water immersions affected the symptoms of DOMS significantly, compared to the control conditions, 24 hours after training. This effect remained significant up to 96 hours later. There was no evidence, however, that cooling affected any objective recovery variable, such as blood levels of any biomarker, in a significant way during a 96-hour recovery period. Cold water immersion achieved the best effect with respect to the other cooling applications.

On the other hand, a 2017 study found there was improvement in recovery markers from whole-body cryotherapy (WBC). Muscle pain was reduced. There was also evidence of reduction of systemic inflammation and lower concentrations of markers for muscle cell damage. These results suggest that WBC may improve recovery from muscle damage, with multiple exposures more consistently exhibiting improvements in recovery from pain, loss of muscle function, and markers of inflammation and damage.

But in this study (and many others), there was a lot of variability in the different studies – temperature, length of sessions, frequency of sessions, how to induce muscle damage – that made it hard to give specific recommendations about cryotherapy.

Another study showed that cold water immersion (CWI) was more effective than whole-body cryotherapy in accelerating recovery kinetics 72 hours postexercise. CWI also demonstrated lower soreness and higher perceived recovery levels across 24-48 hours after exercise.

A Cochrane review, thought to be a gold standard as far as scientific studies and reviews of the scientific literature, looked at WBC for muscle soreness after exercise. The researchers concluded there was insufficient evidence to determine whether whole-body cryotherapy reduces self-reported muscle soreness, or improves subjective recovery, after exercise compared with passive rest or no WBC in physically active young adult males. Fortunately, they found little evidence on adverse events, which is important given that the exposure to extreme temperatures that could present risks. But it’s hard to know if there weren’t complications from the cryotherapy or that adverse outcomes just weren’t being reported.

And finally, there is the idea out there that WBC might actually be harmful for recovery, looking at markers of recovery following a marathon. A 2018 study found that WBC has a negative impact on muscle function, perceptions of soreness and a number of blood parameters compared to CWI, contradicting the suggestion that WBC may be a superior recovery strategy. Further, cryotherapy was no more effective than a placebo intervention at improving functional recovery or perceptions of training stress following a marathon.

Problem with research about cryotherapy

As stated earlier, it’s really hard to design a good study for cryotherapy because participants know whether or not they are in the treatment or control group. You know if you are standing in an extremely cold chamber or not, making it hard to eliminate the placebo or nocebo effects.

Man standing in a polar plunge, or cold water immersion

Conclusion about whole-body cryotherapy

The scientific literature shows some positive results for whole-body cryotherapy as a modality for sports and exercise recovery with some other studies suggesting it’s not helpful. Assuming you have no medical reason you can’t try it, you could give it a shot after a few workouts and see if you feel like it helps.

Links to studies in the comments

If you would like to read the studies I mentioned in the video, here are links to them:

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