What comes to mind when you hear the term "cryotherapy?" Maybe you're picturing a room with huge silver tanks spewing white gasses and people braving temperatures down to 200 degrees below freezing. Maybe you're picturing YouTube videos of celebrities and vloggers with chattering teeth talking about how great they feel after a little freeze. But that's not the whole picture. "Cryotherapy just means cold therapy," said David Smart, MD, a dermatologist with University of Utah Health. "Any time cold is used as some form of treatment, that term can be applied."
Let's start with the type of cryotherapy currently seen on news programs and in pop culture. Known specifically as whole body cryotherapy, it involves standing in a cold chamber for a short period of time. Proponents say the experience can help muscles recover faster after workouts, heal joints, speed up metabolism, or even slow the aging process.
But while people are talking about the benefits of cryotherapy, medical science is still catching up and has yet to fully substantiate some of them. The two most investigated domains are improvements in mental and physical health and improvements in recovery after physical exercise, for which cryotherapy shows substantial potential benefits. The concern lies in the lack of standardization in temperature and exposure protocols.
The use of this type of cryotherapy for anti-aging is not as well understood or supported by rigorous medical science. When the term cryotherapy is used in medical circles, that's not typically what they're referring to.
In a medical setting, cryotherapy is used in two primary ways. Cryosurgery is the use of liquid nitrogen to remove unwanted items from the skin. "Moles, skin tags, basal cell cancers, and superficial squamous cell cancers all can be removed in this way," Smart said. "You freeze the spot that you're trying to ablate or remove for a specific amount of time for a specific intensity to induce the skin to resurface."
Cryolipolysis is the other common use. This is the freezing of fat cells to break them down so they can be reabsorbed by the body. It's a non-invasive way to remove fat cells and not damage other tissues in the body. "There are no long-term or significant side effects," Smart said. "Also, the cold acts as an anesthetic so the patient is awake for the entire procedure."
Cold is a powerful energy. From ice packs to liquid nitrogen, there are real applications for it. However, before you go in for an expensive "deep freeze," it's best to get an opinion from a medical professional first.