Cryotherapy is a fairly new technology, and it has only been in use since 1978. It was at this time in Japan that the idea of lowering body temperature as a treatment procedure was discovered. The year 1978 seems like a long time ago for some people, but, in medical circles, it’s a very short while ago, considering that the mere approval of a drug can take up to 10 years of testing. When you look at cryotherapy with that same view, it starts to become less of a miracle cure, despite all the hype.
Nevertheless, there is little evidence to suggest that cryotherapy is dangerous or harmful to those who use it. Skeptics believe this is probably because only a few people use it often, sessions can be quite expensive, and only a few have been exposed to this form of therapy often enough to realize any dangers. Perhaps we will find out more about it as time goes by, but, for now, there are already a few known risks, including frostbite, asphyxiation, decreased blood flow, and allergy flare ups.
Frostbit is fairly likely to occur during a cryotherapy session, if the necessary precautions are not taken. This is obvious, due to the extremely cold temperatures that are present during exposure. A high profile case of frostbite due to cryotherapy is that of track champion Justin Gatlin, who could not participate in the 2011 World Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Daegu, South Korea, due to frostbite. Gatlin had not taken the necessary precautions, such as making sure all clothing worn during the session was dry. With temperatures going below -100oC, it is possible to get frostbite on your feet and hands in just one session and from just a little moisture. Justin Gatlin got it because he entered the cryotherapy chamber in sweaty socks after a workout.
Clearly, frostbite is likely given the nature of this treatment. However, taking precautions, such as making sure you and your clothing are fully dry, will reduce the chances of frostbite significantly.
Liquid nitrogen is not supposed to be used in whole body cryotherapy (WBC), because the nitrogen replaces oxygen in the body cells, leading to asphyxiation. It can be used in partial body cryotherapy (PBC), where the individual’s head is sticking out of the cryotherapy chamber, but, even then, the risk remains. The liquid nitrogen can quickly turn into gas and cause asphyxiation, which is why all cryotherapy sessions should be done under supervision.
If you decide cryotherapy is the right treatment for you, be sure to address this topic with an experienced professional. An experienced professional should be able to tell you what types of precautions they use during cryotherapy treatment in order to avoid complications that could lead to asphyxiation.
Decreased blood flow
Blood vessels close to the skin constrict when the temperature is low to decrease the loss of body heat. Cryotherapy can cause the blood vessels to constrict extensively, cutting off blood supply to some areas of the body. This is why people with high blood pressure are not allowed to practice cryotherapy.
To avoid this, though, the individual is advised to keep moving - stomping their feet and flailing their arms - to ensure blood keeps flowing everywhere in the body. In addition, there is an acclimatization chamber with a slightly higher temperature than the cryo sauna, which helps your body adjust to the extremely cold temperatures.
Decreased blood flow can cause many issues, as the body needs blood to flow everywhere to function properly. Be sure to use the acclimatization chamber correctly. Clear instructions should be provided on the proper use of the acclimatization chamber. By using the acclimatization chamber in the correct manner and continuing to move throughout the cryotherapy session, the risks involved with decreased blood flow can be mitigated.
Allergy flare-ups, asthma, and arrhythmia
The low temperature can trigger allergies in someone sensitive to low temperature. The low temperature may also cause a person with asthma to have an asthma attack. An individual with high blood pressure can also experience increased heart rate or, worse, arrhythmia. All these possible risks will be listed in the waiver you will have to sign before the procedure. Because cryotherapy is not an officially approved therapy for any condition, it is important to understand the risks involved. A waiver will be signed that prevents the organization that provides cryotherapy from being held responsible for risks that are covered in the paperwork.
Because cryotherapy is considered to be a fairly new and alternative method of treatment, it is also important to see professionals that are experienced with cryotherapy. While it may be tempting to go with a cheaper or easier route, it may be necessary to do find whoever is most experienced with this treatment to avoid complications and poor outcomes.
Do the risks outweigh the benefits?
We take medication with negative side effects, because the benefits outweigh the risks. This weighing of benefits and possible side effects is performed by a physician or other professional, as well as yourself. However, with cryotherapy, it is still unknown whether or not the benefits outweigh the side effects, because the technology has yet to be approved, so we may not know the long-term effects. It is possible that we are also unaware of the types of conditions cryotherapy is capable of treating.
You may consider cryotherapy as an alternative treatment for various conditions. Be sure to address the possible side effects and risks that are associated with cryotherapy with a doctor or other professional. While cryotherapy may be effective for your condition, it is possible that cryotherapy is not right for you, due to your health history and other current conditions. It should also be noted that using cryotherapy as treatment may be dangerous, as we do not yet know the long-term effects this treatment may have. That being said, cryotherapy may ultimately be your best option, if deemed appropriate by you and by experienced professionals.