Ice, Ice, Crazy: The pseudoscience of cryotherapy.

It’s happening again, we see it all the time, particularly in our sport. Guys filling up giant trashcans and filling them with bags of ice. They swear by it. And who can blame them? Every guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast does too. You can’t blame them either. At the elite level of any sport everyone is doing everything they can do maximize their recovery. But let’s not forget about Michael Phelps’ imprints of concentric circles at the last olympics where he had been “cupping” before his events (as was the fad for entire swim team).

But in a world where the worlds strongest men and the best big wave surfers insist on immersing yourselves in ice cold water to maximize sport recovery, what does the actual science have to say?

thor

Thor and the boyz in a cold tub.

Well like any topic nowadays there is support and there is not support for it. The problem with modern scientific literature is that everyone has access to it and they don’t understand the validity (or lack thereof) of the particular journal they’re pulling from. So they copy and paste and bam! It’s better to be vegan, here’s proof. Bam! It’s better to eat keto, here’s proof. Bam! It’s better to eat only meat, follow the Volaard HIIT regime for cardio, and crossfit upside down, here’s proof.

The problem is the infrastructure of modern academia, scientists need to publish to keep their jobs so now there are thousands of journals that have thousands of pages that are published every month (not an exaggeration). All journals are not created equal, some have larger impact factors (Science and Nature are the highest) as an indicator of the possible “impacts” their findings may have on society. There are other problems too.  Metastudies (they look at a bunch of studies together) are best, especially if they look at study quality. Who funded the study? Oh the people who made the product? They found positive results? No way!

Anyway I could go on and on. The long and short of it is this:

  1. Cryotherapy is semi-useful for injuries to reduce inflammation related to tissue damage in short bouts (less than 10 minutes). This includes localized icing for physical therapy (rehab) either before or in conjunction with surgery of course.maxresdefault
  2.  Whole body immersion (WBI) cryotherapy has only proven useful for helping sport practitioners feel mentally better. In other words the effects are psychosomatic – in your head. Despite how elite level athletes swear by using it, we can’t find any physiological factors associated with muscle/joint recovery that it benefits (not in any quality metastudy at least). In fact, hilariously enough, there’s more support in the literature for low level lazer therapy than there is for cryotherapy.
  3. That being said that mental benefit may be beneficial outside of sports recovery. Anyone who’s watched Wim Hof knows this to be the case. Cold water therapy might be beneficial as it’s an added stressor to your training regime rather than an effective recovery mechanism.

    Laser-Therapy-in-Pittsburgh-PA

    Low Level Light Therapy Setup

  4. Well what about hot water you say? Well Contrasting Water Immersion (CWI) or just hot water/sauna soaks have been proven to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) associated with intense exercise. Careful though, hopping from extreme hot to cold can actually induce a heart attack. Also, let’s not forget that DOMS is there for a reason, so you don’t overtrain (plenty of people are getting rhabdo these days).
  5. What about the famed heat shock proteins everyone is touting  these days? Well, it turns out that they may have some serious physiological benefits. Higher concentrations have been shown to do all kinds of things like reduce muscle stress, downregulate autoimmunity, and even decrease cancer risk – IN MICE. Let’s not forget that if you feed mice a natural compound in red wine (resveratrol) it significantly extends their total life expectancy. We ain’t mice.

    rogan

    Joe maximizing his heat shock protein concentration.

We’re just regular people. So don’t worry about it if you see Thor or Laird Hamilton hopping from the ice bath to the jacuzzi. Skip the ice and take a hot bath, (preferably 90 minutes before sleeping to maximize sleep quality). You don’t need a sauna.

 

Especially if your gym has no A/C.

 

Works cited:

  1. Me
  2. A scientist
  3. At a university
  4. Who’s read the literature
  5. Trust me, I have no ulterior motives.

 

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