The Cooper Institute
 

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH

Loading
 
 

Whole-Body Cryotherapy (WBC): Does It Speed Recovery?

Written by
Sue Beckham, PhD
Posted in
Move more

Thursday, Sep 19, 2013

Professional athletes claim cryotherapy (cold therapy) speeds recovery. Now available to the public, weekend athletes and age-groupers are trying it, too. What is cryotherapy? Is there any research to show it decreases muscle soreness and speeds recovery?

Most of us have experienced the muscle soreness that develops 24 – 48 hours post exercise. Termed delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), it is a result of micro tears in the muscle. Activities like downhill running, heavy lifting, and lowering a weight slowly tend to cause more soreness than uphill or level running. This exercise-induced muscle damage results in soreness, inflammation, pain and discomfort, and temporarily decreases strength which can delay recovery.

For years, athletes and medical professionals have used forms of cryotherapy like the application of ice to treat injuries. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear stories about endurance athletes spending 10 – 20 minutes in an uncomfortable ice bath (50 degrees F) post exercise in an effort to speed recovery. Cryotherapy decreases blood flow, inflammation, and pain; for these reasons, it is often used to treat acute injuries.

Rather than ice packs and ice baths, athletes are trying whole-body cryotherapy which uses a special cryochamber that keeps the temperature at a very chilly -166 to -220 degrees F. Some chambers accommodate up to four people at a time. Subjects wear minimal clothing to prevent frostbite and gradually progress to the coldest chamber temperature. The athlete spends no more than 2 – 3 minutes in the chamber. Lots of professional athletes use cryotherapy after every game with the hope of speeding recovery. But, does is there any research to show it works?

A recent study (Hausswirth et al., 2011) looked at the effect of whole-body cryotherapy on recovery after exercise-induced muscle damage.  Nine well-trained runners (average personal bests fewer than 35 minutes for a 10K and 2:45 for the marathon) initially participated in a VO2 max test to measure aerobic capacity. Later on two separate occasions, they ran for 48 minutes on a treadmill using a protocol designed to produce delayed onset muscle soreness with speed changes and uphill and downhill running. They performed the same workout on two different occasions and randomly participated in two types of recovery. After one workout, they participated in 3 minutes of whole-body cryotherapy immediately post exercise, 24 hours, and 48 hours post exercise.  After the other workout, they sat for 30 minutes at a comfortable room temperature. Researchers measured muscle pain, tiredness, quadricep strength, and collected blood samples. They measured levels of a muscle enzyme called creatine kinase (CK), an indicator of muscle damage. Creatine kinase leaks from damaged muscle into the blood stream. All variables were measured before the workout, immediately after, and at 1, 24 and 48 hours post exercise.

Researchers found that ratings of muscle pain and tiredness were reduced after the first WBC session. There were, however, no differences in recovery of quadricep strength between the cryotherapy and passive recovery sessions. Although creatine kinase increased significantly after each run, levels were not different between passive recovery and cryotherapy. Other studies (Gill et al., 2006; Banfi et al., 2007; Wozniak, et al., 2007), however, reported that cryotherapy decreased levels of creatine kinase compared to passive recovery, suggesting cryotherapy may facilitate muscle fiber repair, enhancing recovery.

A study by Purnot and his colleagues (2011), measured blood markers of inflammation (cytokines) before, immediately after running, and for 96 hours post exercise. They compared recovery using WBC treatments to passive recovery. Researchers found that WBC significantly decreased inflammatory cytokines and increased levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines compared to passive recovery.  Both of these findings further suggest that WBC may reduce inflammation associated with exercise- induced muscle damage

More studies are needed to quantify the effects of WBC on recovery but it certainly looks promising. When deciding whether to try an ice bath or cryotherapy, there are some considerations. Ice baths are more uncomfortable than WBC; you will probably have to sit in the ice bath longer to achieve the same effect since the water temperature is warmer than WBC treatments. In contrast, cryotherapy uses very dry, cold air for a much shorter time so subjects don’t report much discomfort at all. After WBC, subjects don’t report the joint stiffness typically seen several after an ice bath. However, ice baths are easier on the wallet; WBC sessions can range from $35 - $75 per session. The effectiveness of WBC compared to ice bath warrants further evaluation. After years of using ice baths for recovery from endurance training, WBC is looking like a more desirable option to me. Share your cryotherapy experiences with on us on Facebook.

References

Banfi, G. and Valentini, P. (2007). Effects of cold-water immersion of legs after training session on serum creatine kinase concentration in rugby players [letter]. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 41: 339.

Gill, N., Beaven, C. and Cook, C. (2006). Effectiveness of post-match recovery strategies in rugby players. British Journal of Sports Medicine.  40: 260-3.

Hausswirth, C., Louis, J., Bieuzen, F., et al. (2011). Effects of whole-body cryotherapy vs. far-infrared vs. passive modalities on recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage in highly-trained runners. PloS ONE. 6(12): e27749. Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027749

Purnot, H., Biuezan, F., Louis, J. et al. (2011). Time-course changes in inflammatory response after whole-body cryotherapy multi exposures following severe exercise. PloS ONE. 6(7): e22748. Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022748

Wozniak, A, Wozniak, B, Drewa, G. et al. (2007). The effect of whole body cryostimulation on lysosomal enzyme activity in kayakers during training. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 100: 137-142.