Cryotherapy – for pain relief, insomnia, depression

The latest therapy is so cool it’s frozen.  Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) involves marching around a cold chamber (basically a giant freezer) at  body-numbing sub-zero temperatures.  It sounds like cranky madness – stay inside for ten minutes and you literally freeze to death.  Yet more and more people are embracing the ultimate chill, claiming it offers a wide range of health benefits. I tried it out at the Lamm AlpenMed Hotel in Seefeld, Austria.

I’m standing in front of a giant freezer in a swimming costume and trainers. Let’s be very honest, I’m shaking with fear. I’m about to try out cryotherapy, the latest and, quite literally, the coolest therapy on the planet.

My blood pressure is checked, a mask placed over my nose and mouth and then it’s time to enter the big freeze.  The first chamber is a brisk 10 degrees below freezing and actually it feels OK.  I walk around, acclimatising my body before pulling open the heavy locks into the second chamber.  Here the temperature dips to 60 degrees below.  It’s cold but it’s a dry cold and I’m surprised that I am not shivering.  So far, so good.  But now Isabella, the therapist who is monitoring me on closed circuit TV from outside, is speaking through the intercom.  ‘All OK?’ I give a thumbs-up, like a deep sea diver.  ‘Good.  Go into the last chamber now.’

I open the door and the cold billows out at me, icy swirls of chilling fog.  This small chamber is an incredible minus 110 degrees and I am supposed to walk into this giant freezer willingly and slam the door shut behind me.  I have a moment’s doubt.  A ‘this is totally crazy’ thought flashes through my head but I battle it and step into the ice storm.

It’s so cold it takes my breath away and, even with the face mask, it’s quite hard to breathe normally.  ‘Breathe through your nose.  Keep moving,’ says Isabella, and I do.  Time slows as I pace around the chamber.  ‘Ten seconds,’ comes her disembodied voice.  Only ten seconds?  Every second seems like a minute when your body is quite literally starting to freeze.  At the 60 second stage I feel faint and have to concentrate hard on keeping moving.  At two minutes the hairs on my arms are standing up like soldiers and I start to do star jumps and spotty dogs, more to keep my mind off what is happening than to keep warm.  Then, suddenly, it becomes easy.  The panic dies away and instead comes a kind of euphoria.  When Isabella shouts triumphantly through the intercom ‘Three minutes.  Come on out,’ I feel I could stay longer – except that the skin on my arms is starting to pucker as if I’m turning old overnight.

Once outside, I’m wrapped in a large fluffy bathrobe and my blood pressure is taken again to ensure everything’s OK.  My skin feels scarily akin to a deep-frozen joint just out of the freezer.  It’s quite red, as if I’m sunburned but thankfully the prematurely aged look swiftly disappears.  ‘Lie down and rest for half an hour now,’ says Isabella, leading me to a water couch.  But it’s hard to lie still as really I feel like running up the nearest mountain.  I’m literally buzzing with energy and feeling on top of the world.

Cryotherapy is being touted as an effective form of pain relief – particularly for chronic degenerative conditions.  ‘Cold therapy has profound analgesic effects,’ says Dr Georg Kettenhuber, who has treated many top athletes (including international footballer Fabiano) at his clinic in Austria.  ‘I use it to treat sports injuries, inflammatory rheumatic diseases, degenerative diseases and all manner of chronic painful conditions.’

‘One of the best ways to defeat pain is to beat it in the race to the brain,’ explains pain expert Dr Dharma Singh Khalsa, author of The Pain Cure (Pocket Books).  He points out that cold signals travel faster than pain signals and so can help to ‘crowd out’ the pain.

So far WBC has mainly been embraced by sportspeople who find recovery time from injury can be halved and sporting performance enhanced.  Bolton Wanderers FC has its own cryochamber; all the home nation rugby teams use the therapy and Frank Bruno is a regular visitor to the cryopod at Champneys Tring.  Given that localised cold treatments (sprays, packs and baths) are already common in sports therapy, it’s perhaps not so surprising.   What is surprising is that it’s said to affect the mind as well as the body.  ‘There are huge psychological benefits,’ says Dr Kettenhuber.  ‘It can ease depression and insomnia, and has good effects on stress, partly because it raises endorphin levels.’

WBC may seem off the wall but it is widely used by doctors in Poland, Germany and Austria.

Whole body cryotherapy is available at Champneys Tring:

WBC is contraindicated for a number of conditions – check with a doctor before proceeding.

Dr Kettenhuber practices in Austria:

Conditions cryotherapy may help

  • Inflammatory rheumatic joint diseases
  • Chronic pain (ie from fibromyalgia etc)
  • Muscular spasm (ie multiple sclerosis)
  • Sports injuries – muscle and joint trauma
  • Psoriasis and forms of dermatitis
  • Bronchial asthma
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disorders
  • Chronic headache/migraine
  • Depression
  • Stress

What cryotherapy does

  • increases muscle strength
  • gives better joint function
  • decreases muscle tension
  • improves blood circulation
  • speeds up removal of toxins
  • releases endorphins (feelgood chemicals)

Who can’t have cryotherapy

  • people with pacemakers
  • pregnant women
  • anyone with a cold or flu

The following conditions are also contraindicated for cryotherapy

  • untreated high blood pressure
  • unstable angina
  • thrombosis
  • Raynaud’s syndrome
  • Acute kidney, urinary tract, respiratory or cardiovascular diseases
  • Active cancer
  • Epilepsy
  • Claustrophobia
  • Bacterial and viral skin infections

Five alternative chill-outs

  1. A classic Finnish sauna is traditionally followed by a bracing roll in the snow to stimulate circulation.
  2. Avantouinti (ice hole swimming) is popular in Finland – it’s said to improve immunity and banish stress. In Russia, China and North America, ice swimmers are known as ‘walruses’ or ‘polar bears’.
  3. Hydrotherapists make an ‘ice turban’ by soaking a towel in iced water and winding it around the head. It is said to ease headaches, control faintness and depression.
  4. UK-based healer Alla Svirinskaya recommends ice cubes on the coccyx and base of the neck as a cure for hormonal problems and overeating. See her book Energy Secrets (Hay House) for full details.
  5. Some physiotherapists suggest ice baths for sports injuries.  Some people with MS have also found it helpful.

A version of this first appeared in the Telegraph.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash


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