Cryotherapy for Pain Management, Healing and Athletic Performance

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To heat up their performance on the green or in the field, some pro athletes are opting to get cold—very cold. According to an October 2016 article in GOLF Magazine, whole body cryotherapy—which involves standing in a cryosauna filled with nitrogen vapor at temperatures between -90°C to -120°C for up to three minutes—is gaining popularity on the PGA Tour, as just one example. Several PGA touring pros have already taken the deep freeze, reports the magazine, including Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson and Padraig Harrington. In doing so, they join the athletes across a wide range of other sports who have also stepped into a cryosauna on the recommendation of their chiropractors, and reported that the experience leaves them feeling invigorated and may also contribute to a decrease in recovery time after a workout.

Dr. Lu-Jean Feng said she became interested in cryotherapy after she learned LeBron James and Jamaican gold medalist Usain Bolt use the method to recover after workouts. Mr. James even has a cryotherapy unit in his home, she said, and Mr. Bolt has a mobile unit that he travels with. The way the procedure works is a patient steps into a cylindrical chamber, often referred to as a cryosauna, which then uses liquid nitrogen at -200°F to supercool the body for one to three minutes. Individuals wear protective mittens and slippers while in the chamber to protect their hands and feet. 

And while cryotherapy is popular among extreme athletes, Dr. Feng noted that it can be beneficial to just about anyone. She said there have been various scientific studies on the topic that have found that people who suffer from chronic injuries and everyday pain can benefit from the treatment. “They benefit from better, faster functional recovery meaning greater range of motion and less pain after they had cryotherapy,” Dr. Feng explained. “People with fibromyalgia, people with arthritis, they could benefit because these are chronic inflammatory conditions not necessarily induced by injury but more induced by repetitive motion from everyday things.” Cryotherapy is beneficial, she said, because it helps the body produce antioxidants and decreases inflammation within the body, leading to faster recovery and general pain relief. There are individuals who should not engage in the cold blast treatment, including individuals who suffer from vascular disease, cold induced asthma, atherosclerosis or women who are pregnant, Dr. Feng said.

“Cryotherapy is an important part of my players’ recovery programs and could be appealing to players in any sport,” says Dr. Troy Van Biezen, a chiropractor in Dallas, who is quoted in the GOLF article. “As a chiropractor to many athletes, my mission is to provide the highest quality, individualized treatment that yields the fastest results. I have found that cryotherapy can help accomplish this as a quick, comfortable and safe alternative to an ice bath.”

“To stay hot in competition, more athletes are finding the deep freeze of cryotherapy to be especially appealing,” Dr. Van Biezen adds.

“I think people are always looking for new therapy and ways to relieve pain,” Dr. Feng said regarding the popularity of cryotherapy. People like cryotherapy, she added, because it is more natural with less side effects than some other pain relieving methods. “Because there can be a lot of side effects to using aspirin, Advil, Aleve, this is an alternative therapy that doesn’t involve injuring your stomach or kidney as a result of taking these over-the-counter medications.

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Cleveland Plastic Surgeon