Cryotherapy for Athletes
Post-workout soreness is considered to be the good kind of pain for athletes. Most people think of it as a sign that they challenged their body enough to improve strength. You may find yourself craving soreness after workouts so you can feel accomplished, but once that soreness hits, it is not so fun to deal with. During exercise, small tears are created in the muscle fibers, which causes increased blood flow to the area, producing inflammation. This is the same response developed after an acute injury, such as an ankle sprain or pulled hamstring tendon. Athletes usually resort to taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications to relieve the pain, but the use of cold packs is a common go-to mechanism for muscle soreness and injury.
Basically the application of ice restricts blood flow to the area, which helps prevent the buildup of inflammation. Although research is inconclusive about whether cold therapy can actually make a huge difference in the amount of inflammation, it is safe to say it can at least numb the pain of the inflammation enough to help us go on with activities. When it comes to injuries or pain, the confusion is usually about whether to use ice or heat. In any case, if there is a sign of an inflammatory response, then ice is the answer, as heat facilitates blood flow and increases inflammation, thereby making injuries worse and delaying healing. More recent research is being done regarding the use of cold therapies such as ice baths, cold packs, and the newer technologies of whole body cryotherapy saunas.
Forms of Cryotherapy
Whole Body Immersion
For decades the concept of immersing the entire body into cold water, or ice baths, has been popular amongst athletes as well as individuals suffering from severe pain conditions. One study involved a group of runners who immersed into an ice bath at a temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes following a 90-minute high-intensity workout, while another group who performed the same workout recovered without the ice bath. The runners who used the ice bath reported much less soreness days later than the control group, but samples of their creatine kinase levels, which is a true marker of muscle damage, were no different. This is a similar conclusion to most other research on the use of cold therapy—athletes felt better, but muscle damage and injuries remained unchanged following treatment.
A much newer form of cryotherapy that has become quite popular amongst athletes is the cryotherapy chamber. The temperature is significantly colder than the ice bath, but treatment time is usually short—three minutes at the most. Most chambers will be around minus 166 degrees Fahrenheit, more than most can handle for even three minutes. The theory behind this cryotherapy chamber is that is reduces inflammation throughout the entire body and therefore speeding recovery. Many elite athletes swear by these chambers right after their hard sessions. Again, the cryotherapy research has been conclusive about reducing the subjective level of soreness and pain, but not so much about the actual muscle damage repair.
One study recorded inflammatory markers of runners after a 48-minute simulated trail run on the treadmill. Half of the runners in the study used the cryotherapy chamber once a day for five days while the other half recovered without cold therapy. The inflammatory markers from the first day were significantly lower in the cryotherapy group, which coincides with the reduction of soreness. Researchers still report that this evidence only relates to inflammation and not necessarily to repair of muscle damage.
The easiest form of cryotherapy application is the use of cold packs directly on the area of pain or injury. It makes the most sense if you are solely trying to treat one body part, instead of suffering through several minutes of hypothermic-like symptoms in a chamber or ice bath. It may be the best option for reducing pain from a hard workout, but not for speeding healing time. If you are experiencing soreness all over the body and wish to lessen the pain quickly, ice baths or chambers may be your best choice. If it is just a nagging knee or shoulder achiness, go for the ice pack as it will most likely be a more comfortable ten minutes.
Research is inconclusive about cryotherapy as a form of faster recovery from exercise or a means to improve performance. The upside of using cold therapy is that you will most likely feel better in terms of pain or soreness, without the use of medicine. One of the best forms of recovery to soothe achy muscles is an active recovery. For runners, this can be an easy jog, cycling, walking, or swimming. Active recovery keeps your muscles moving to prevent stiffness in joints and increased tightness in muscles, which will limit the total amount of pain over time. These effects will help you get back into training much quicker than any cold therapy method.
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- The Effectiveness of Whole Body Cryotherapy Compared to Cold Water Immersion: Implications for Sport and Exercise Recovery, Journal ,
- Whole-Body Cryotherapy in Athletes: From Therapy to Stimulation. An Updated Review of the Literature, Journal ,