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I Tried Cryotherapy for Chronic Pain. Here's What Happened.

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Editor's Note

Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

Hi, my name’s Veronica and I live with fibromyalgia and myofascial pain syndrome. Both conditions cause chronic pain which has been a regular part of my life for the past 10 years. As I get older and my life takes me in new directions, I’m constantly looking for ways to manage my chronic pain which mostly affects my neck, shoulders and back.

woman looking at camera with black hair and smiling
That’s me!

All About Cryotherapy

On bad flare days when my neck hurts more than usual, I use an ice pack. It’s an easy fix that doesn’t take a ton of effort. I usually lean back on it while I watch something on TV. I never really understood the science of why something as simple as an ice pack helps chronic pain. That’s when I started researching and learned all about the benefits of cold therapy.

Cryotherapy is another word for cold therapy. It’s a giant machine that creates a drop in temperature, usually between negative 130 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, while you stand inside for a couple of minutes. It looks like this:

cryotherapy machine turned on

“Whole-body cryotherapy is used to help relieve chronic pain, decrease inflammation, speed recovery time, increase athletic performance and reduce delayed onset muscle soreness,” Kevin McLaughlin, D.C., owner of Complete Chiropractic Sports & Wellness in Durham, North Carolina said. “Some additional benefits include pain relief from chronic medical conditions, increased circulation throughout your body and treatment of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.” It may also help skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.

For the record, I am not an athlete. I danced growing up, but as an adult, the most I ever did was train for a half-marathon. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great accomplishment, but that was almost three years ago and I haven’t run much since.

So I had to ask, “Was this actually meant for someone like me?” Dr. McLaughlin said yes:

Whole body cryotherapy is ideal for athletes seeking muscle recovery, but also for people with chronic pain and inflammatory conditions. Cryotherapy is also used post-surgically to accelerate the healing process and reduce pain without the side effects of pain medications and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Think of cryotherapy as the more extreme version of an ice bath. It’s not a cure, but may help you manage and reduce pain. So, that begs the question: How often should someone go into a cryotherapy machine? McLaughlin made it clear that one-time usage wasn’t going to have a long-lasting effect:

Depending upon the condition being treated, it should initially take five to ten treatments in close succession, such as every other day, for the first two weeks. After this initial loading period, maintenance treatments should be at least once per week.

Initially, that sounds like a major commitment. It does make sense though. I use my ice pack multiple times a week and it’s the same theory. It would be nice if this could be a one-and-done thing, but managing pain is never straightforward.

But how does it work? “The exposed skin reacts to the extreme temperatures by sending messages to the brain that stimulate natural regulatory functions of the body,” McLaughlin told me. “In addition, the skin’s exposure to these subzero temperatures trigger the release of anti-inflammatory molecules, endorphins, and increases oxygen circulation within the bloodstream.”

The Experiment

This was not going to be a one-and-done type of treatment, but I was still curious about what it would be like to try it. I mean, it’s scary. I hate being cold for one thing. (You should see my sweater collection.) But also, it’s your whole body that goes into this tank. I doubt I’m the only one with irrational fears about getting trapped inside of one. I was curious and wanted to try it. It would only be a few minutes of my life after all.

I arrived at Complete Chiropractic Sports & Wellness on a Monday morning. I was told I could completely undress or keep my clothes on. I decided to keep my clothes on. I wanted this to be an easy process. It’s a little intimidating stepping inside a giant freezer, let alone going inside one completely naked. I did have to wear special gloves and booties to protect me from getting stuck inside the machine, among other things. (Have you ever heard of freezer burn?)

It’s a pretty quick process. The machine turns on, you go inside, you stand there for a minute or two and then it’s done. But my goodness, did it get cold.

woman standing in cryotherapy tank

All of this fear about a minute and a half of cryotherapy, and it was done without me even realizing it. The process itself was easy. The part I was worried about was if it would actually work.

How It Went

I went straight from my cryotherapy session to work. At first, I felt as if nothing happened. My body still had its normal tightness. It’s tough sitting down for hours on end staring at a computer so I had at least hoped something would happen. It wasn’t until after lunch did I realize my body actually did feel better.

It wasn’t like the type of relief you would get after a deep tissue massage or from a muscle relaxer. It mostly made my entire body feel more relaxed. Have you ever taken a bath and stayed in it for longer than you usually would? It kind of felt like that. My body was calmer. I still had pain, but that pain was dulled.

The next morning that sensation was still there. I slept probably better than I had in a few weeks. Usually, I can’t stay asleep for more than a few hours because of my chronic pain, but I only woke up once to go to the bathroom around 2 AM. As I worked that morning and into the afternoon, I started to realize the sensation was going away. It was like I was back to my normal chronic pain self. There’s no surprise there since McLaughlin specifically told me it’s best to do multiple sessions in a week the first time you try it. It was still disappointing though. Why can’t I just live in a world where my pain is cured after a single short session in a cryotherapy tank?

My Final Thoughts

The cryotherapy session did exactly what I was told it was going to do. It helped me with my pain, but not entirely (though any relief is great). My body felt relaxed. It was just disappointing that its effects were short-lived. This is absolutely something that can’t just be done once. If you want this to work, it needs to be incorporated into your routine.

Managing pain is a tricky thing. If someone hired me to take care of myself the best I could, it would be a full-time job and I can say without a doubt cryotherapy would be incorporated into my day. That being said, managing my chronic pain is NOT my full-time job and I do have to make decisions based on time.

I don’t think something as regular as cryotherapy works for my lifestyle. Besides the time commitment, I would also have to think of the cost. Where I live, one session is close to $40 which isn’t unreasonable for me, but the cost adds up. For other areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles or New York, it can be closer to $100 per session. Most places offer packages and memberships that lower the cost, but it’s still expensive.

Rating: Three out of five stars

Originally published: October 16, 2019
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