Frozen Treats – Ice baths & cryotherapy 

How is cold treatment used across the medical community? 

Generally speaking, cryotherapy is the use of cold or lowered temperatures in medical treatment. People use the term most commonly when describing the surgical application in which diseased tissue is removed or destroyed by freezing the offending areas. But technically, these surgical techniques – usually used to treat skin lesions or conditions – are known as cryosurgery or cryoablation.

Cryotherapy can be used to treat swelling after an injury, surgery, or other soft tissue damage.

There are experts that swear by cryotherapy, claiming they’ve enjoyed not only physical but mental benefits. At the same time, there are admissions that the scientific evidence for the practice is lacking. The symptom alleviation is present in many patients, but the efficacy may be lacking. 

The Business Side of Cryotherapy

A recent report posted on MedGadget suggests the global cryotherapy market will have a worth approaching $6 billion by the year 2026. The rapid growth is attributed to factors both organic (increased acceptance, popularity due to athletes/celebrities and their utilization of the art) and environmental (increased prevalence of cancer). 

In particular, various skin cancers lend themselves to minimally invasive procedures for treatment, and the aftereffects of cryotherapy treatments are considerably lesser than other options. Globally, North America does account for the greatest market share, but cryotherapy is enjoying increased popularity around the world due to its ability to avoid damaging healthy tissue, unlike many other treatments for cancer and serious diseases.

Ice Baths

The increased focus on recovery in athletics over the past few decades indirectly led to the popularization of the ice bath, the terms given to the practice of rehabilitating athletes submerging their bodies in whirlpools or tubs filled with cold water. Originally practiced by distance runners and marathoners, athletes of all shapes and sizes can now be found extolling the therapeutic virtues of cold baths. 

The belief is that exposure to the cold can reduce the trauma from microtears of muscle fibers and the resulting soreness of workouts. Thought to constrict blood vessels and flush waste, many believe ice baths can reduce swelling and tissue breakdown. 

The idea of submerging one’s entire body in cold temperatures may not be appealing, and while your first experience may be jarring, the body does quickly adjust to the temperature, plus the relief experienced when stepping out of the tub is eye-opening. The advantage of complete submersion is the ability to treat an entire area or muscle group, as opposed to localized swelling with a simple ice pack. 

Is there a downside? Well, yes, particularly for those attempting to do this without researching or consulting an expert. For one, evidence as to the healing properties of ice baths is limited. This is more of a ‘it works for me’ therapeutic measure. Like most forms of therapy, different professionals’ opinions vary as to the degree of effectiveness of ice baths in particular. Take the average of those opinions, and you’ll probably end up with something like “I can’t promise this will help, but if you do it correctly, it won’t harm you.”

A few hints for effective icing:

  • Apply ice (in whatever form you choose) AFTER, not before, your activity of choice.
  • The average ice bath is recommended to last between 6-8 minutes. 
  • Many rehabilitation specialists recommend water temperatures between 54-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Each person’s cold tolerance is different; therefore, you can start at a slightly higher temperature and inch toward this mark if necessary. Do not assume the colder, the better.
  • Be smart. For example, if you’re rehabbing from a hamstring injury, keep your arms and most of your torso out of the water, and invest in specially-made foot warmers made of wetsuit material (these go by different names) as the toes are the area of the body most sensitive to the cold temperatures.
  • Don’t rush into a hot shower immediately after your ice bath. The residual effects are greater by warming up gradually with a sweatshirt, towel, or even a cup of coffee. If you cannot warm yourself, head to the shower.

Cryotherapy for Beauty?

Back to authentic cryotherapy, the practice has started to receive attention in the world of beauty, not only as a means of facial treatment, but also as a way to restore life to hair. The entire body need not be submerged – only the hair. 

According to one report, hair cuticles are sealed with nutrition to stimulate collagen production in conjunction with other products used outside of cryotherapy. The ‘freezing’ provides hair with protection from further heat damage. 

The temperature used in this process can drop as low as -196 degrees Celsius. Some studies indicate the process can be used to stimulate hair growth in patients with alopecia or those who have sustained chemotherapy-related hair loss.

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