What is Cryotherapy? The Benefits, History & Risks Behind the Wellness Craze

Last Update: January 19, 2023

Your body has temporary physical reactions to cold—goosebumps, chattering teeth, maybe a jolt of adrenaline from the sudden chill—but did you know that cold may also have more long-lasting health benefits? That’s the idea behind cryotherapy, a popular wellness practice that involves using extreme cold to help treat depression, chronic pain, fatigue, and other ailments. 

Curious about cryotherapy? Wondering how the heck to create an ice bath at home? Read on for the health benefits, history, and tips for trying cold therapy on any budget. 

What is Cryotherapy? 

Cryotherapy refers to using freezing water or air to help improve a person’s health. In some cases, cryotherapy could look like taking an ice bath; in others, it could involve standing in a cryotherapy chamber, which is cooled to anywhere between -150° to -230° degrees Fahrenheit. 

While the research into cryotherapy’s effectiveness is still ongoing, using cold to treat sore muscles and other aches and pains certainly isn’t new. Many studies show that cryotherapy aids in muscular recovery after exercise or injury, and it may also have other health benefits. 

History of Cryotherapy

The ancient Egyptians used cold in their medical treatments for its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. In Finland, where the sauna is thought to have originated, it’s a longstanding wellness practice to end a hot sauna session with a plunge into an icy lake. 

While cryotherapy as we know it today—in the form of fancy facial gadgets and freezing chambers powered by computers—is still quite new, cold therapy at its most basic has been used for many thousands of years in surgery, to treat injury, and even as a mindfulness practice. 

Cryotherapy Treatments & Benefits

The term cryotherapy involves any type of cold treatment, from chambers that target the whole body to treatments on more localized areas, that offer a number of reported benefits. In recent years, you may have heard about it on your favorite wellness podcast (or from the self-proclaimed “Ice Man”, Wim Hof). Here are some of the most well-known cryotherapy benefits:

  • To relieve muscle pain. Cryotherapy chambers and ice baths are often used by athletes to help soothe muscle soreness, recover from injury, and reduce pain and inflammation.
  • To treat arthritis. In patients with arthritis, cryotherapy can help to reduce arthritis pain and make physical therapy and other more aggressive treatments more manageable. 
  • To soothe skin rashes and acne. Cryotherapy is often used to treat dermatological ailments like itchy, dry dermatitis and acne. While more research is needed, some studies show positive effects, including increased hydration in the skin.
  • To relieve migraines. Treating migraine headaches with ice packs is very common, dating back to the 1800s. While more research is necessary, one study showed that participants who used ice packs on the carotid arteries in the neck found relief from their migraines.
  • To treat depression and anxiety. Extreme cold causes the body to release hormones like adrenaline and endorphins, which can have positive short-term effects in the treatment of certain mood disorders.
  • To prevent signs of aging on the skin. So-called “cryo-facials” are becoming popular in the world of cosmetic dermatology. They typically involve pumping liquid nitrogen onto the surface of the skin. The cold increases blood flow to the skin, which may help to combat wrinkles and provide a more radiant appearance. 

Risks of Cryotherapy 

  • Hypoxia (or oxygen deficiency) due to lack of oxygen and prolonged time in a cryotherapy chamber
  • Frostbite or burns from exposing skin to extreme cold temperatures 
  • Eye injuries from not wearing the correct eye protection 
  • Note: Those with heart conditions, high blood pressure, or other preexisting conditions should be especially cautious when trying cryotherapy. Always talk to your doctor before beginning any treatment. 

How to Create a Cryotherapy Routine at Home

If you don’t have access to an ice bath or the funds for a cryotherapy chamber, don’t sweat it. Here are some easy, affordable, and accessible ways to get the benefits of cryotherapy using resources you likely already have. 

  • Fill a bathtub with cold water, then add a bag of ice cubes to the tub. Soak for a few minutes (or as long as you can stand), but do not exceed the recommended 15 minutes. 
  • To get the effects of a cryo-facial at home, invest in a frozen eye mask or facial massage tools that are meant to be used frozen. 
  • To soothe the nervous system or diminish facial puffiness, fill a bowl with ice water and gently submerge your face. Repeat as many times as you like. 
  • If you live in a cold climate, head outdoors for a short meditation (or, if you’re feeling brave, even a quick swim in a lake or river). 
  • If you’re a member at a gym with a sauna, you can combine hot and cold therapies for double the benefits. Stimulate your circulation and ease those post-workout muscles by spending 5-10 minutes in the sauna, then immediately hopping into a cold shower. 

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before changing your diet or healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

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