Cryotherapy is the use of extremely low temperatures—below 100 degrees Celsius—to treat various conditions. There are a few different ways cryotherapy can be performed. One method is where a probe is inserted into the tissue of a specific part of the body. The probe’s temperature is then rapidly lowered, effectively freezing the area it’s inserted into.
Another approach is where a “cryo sauna” or “cryo chamber” has its temperature lowered using a mixture of liquid nitrogen and refrigerated air. Then, you strip down and step inside wearing only the minimal protection necessary. After standing around for a few minutes, you get out.
How Cryotherapy Works
Each form of cryotherapy works by making you extremely cold. More specifically, it makes you cold enough to numb nerves, freeze tissue at the cellular level, destroy cells, or convince your body that it’s dying. Although this sounds bad, the result is often a noticeable health benefit or pain relief.
Cryotherapy Health Benefits
Although the effects of extreme cold can be devastating to the body, the precise application and timing of cryotherapy is capable of producing several health benefits and can be put to good use. As with any form of treatment, always consult your doctor before undergoing cryotherapy. If your doctor signs off though, you can experience one of the following:
1. Pain Relief
Nerve pain can be intense and sometimes resistant to other methods of relief. A cryotherapy probe can freeze a nerve and render it numb. Cryotherapy probes work best for pain conditions caused by a single, isolated nerve. This usually involves neuromas (benign growths in a nerve) or nerve entrapment. “Whole body cryotherapy,” the kind with the cryo sauna, is also used for easing arthritis pain. The cold is not precise enough in these applications to freeze a nerve, but is capable of relieving the pain caused by inflammation.
This is the same property that makes whole body cryotherapy appealing to athletes looking to alleviate delayed muscle soreness that can set in after practice. The vasoconstriction properties of cold temperatures have been known for a while, which is why ice packs are used to help inflammation. Whole body cryotherapy is seen as a better and more comfortable alternative to ice baths.
2. Cancer Prevention or Treatment
Cryotherapy is capable of freezing (and thus killing) cells, and cancer cells are no exception. Although mainly employed in cases of skin or cervical cancer or certain precancerous conditions, it is not limited to these instances. Kidney, lung, and prostate cancer can also be treated with cryotherapy.
When being used to treat cancer or precancerous conditions, cryotherapy probes are used if the site is deep within the body. For more accessible areas, such as the skin, a cotton swab may be used to apply liquid nitrogen. Regardless of the method of application, the result is the same. The area freezes, which kills the cancerous cells. Some tumors may require multiple cryotherapy treatments.
3. Weight Loss
During whole body cryotherapy, you are subject to a sudden and dramatic drop in temperature. Your body will boost its metabolic rate in order to burn more calories and stay warm. The efficacy of this method of weight loss has not been the subject of much scientific study, so it relies mostly on anecdotal evidence.
Side Effects of Cryotherapy
Cryotherapy is not without side effects. Your body does not enjoy being subjected to such severely low temperatures and will respond accordingly. The most significant side effects occur in treatments where a cryotherapy probe is used. Although doctors will try to avoid it as much as possible, tissue surrounding the target area can get exposed to the cold as well. There is also the means that your body disposes of the dead cells.
Specific side effects depend on the location the probe is used, but in general, all internal uses of cryotherapy will result in pain for a few days once the anesthetic wears off.
- Skin: A scab will form over the treated area and fall off after around a month. Temporary redness and irritation, numbness, or tingling are not uncommon as well. The irritation and numbness or tingling can happen when a cryotherapy probe is used to relieve nerve pain.
- Cervix: You will experience a watery discharge that can last up to several weeks as your body eliminates the dead cells. The discharge will be heavy and can sometimes have blood in it. The cervix will be extremely sensitive during the healing period and you should refrain from intercourse to reduce strain to the area and minimize the risk of infection.
- Lung: You may cough up dead tissue for the first few days after treatment. This is unpleasant, but harmless. Other possible side effects include coughing up blood for a short period of time, trouble breathing, or developing a chest infection. These side effects should be short-term and resolve within a week of appearing.
- Kidney: The area around the treatment site can bleed and may be severe enough to warrant a transfusion. Temporary weakness and difficulty retaining urine can also result from injury to the ureter (the tube that links the kidney and bladder).
- Prostate: Constipation and blood in the urine are common side effects from cryotherapy to the prostate, but should resolve after a few weeks. Since the nerves that control erections are next to the prostate gland, there is a risk that they can become damaged by the cryotherapy.
Where Is Cryotherapy Performed?
Cryotherapy treatments are practiced at many hospitals and clinics, but availability depends on the intended use. Many Planned Parenthood clinics, for example, offer cryotherapy for cervical treatments but are best avoided if you have a lung problem. You can consult your doctor about any nearby locations that offer cryotherapy for your specific health need.
Sources for Today’s Article:
“Cryotherapy at a Glance,” Planned Parenthood web site; http://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/womens-health/cryotherapy-leep/cryotherapy, last accessed September 30, 2015.
“Cryotherapy,” Cancer Research UK web site; http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancers-in-general/treatment/other/cryotherapy, last accessed September 30, 2015.
“Cryotherapy for kidney cancer,” Cancer Research UK web site; http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/type/kidney-cancer/treatment/surgery/cryotherapy-kidney-cancer#sfx, last accessed September 30, 2015.
“Cryotherapy for Lung Cancer,” Cancer Research UK web site; http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/type/lung-cancer/treatment/cryotherapy-for-lung-cancer#sfx, last accessed September 30, 2015.
“Cryotherapy for Prostate Cancer,” Cancer Research UK web site; http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/type/prostate-cancer/treatment/cryotherapy-prostate-cancer#sfx, last accessed September 30, 2015.
“Cryotherapy in Pain Management,” MedicineNet.com; http://www.medicinenet.com/cryotherapy/article.htm, last accessed September 30, 2015.