Cryotherapy, also referred to as crymotherapy, is the therapeutic use of localized cold or freezing temperatures to treat pain that primarily targets the body’s soft muscle tissues. Damage to the soft tissue results from strained or ripped muscles, as well as from torn or damaged blood vessels within these muscles.
Because many professional athletes suffer from acute and chronic injuries that affect their soft tissues, cryotherapy is a popular pain treatment technique in the world of sports medicine.
Cryotherapy treatment can effectively:
- decrease muscle spasms
- limit bleeding and swelling
- reduce cell metabolic rate (i.e., reducing the body’s oxygen demands to keep cells healthy)
- reduce pain.
Methods of Cooling in Sports Medicine
Cryotherapy in sports typically uses various methods of cooling, including:
- ethyl chloride and other skin refrigerants
- frozen gel packs
- ice massage
- ice packs and towels
- inflatable splints filled with refrigerant gas.
Although athletes may not be familiar with the term “cryotherapy,” many have, in fact, used it and related therapies to treat their injuries. For example, the use of the R.I.C.E. method of treating an injury is very common. According to the R.I.C.E. treatment, athletes should do the following after being injured:
- Rest the injured body part to allow the tissues to heal.
- Ice the injury for 10 minutes immediately after the injury and periodically (typically every two hours) for the next 48 hours.
- Compress the affected area to minimize the swelling.
- Elevate the injury to limit blood flow.
Cryotherapy Treatments for Other Conditions
Although cryotherapy is primarily used for sports injuries, it can also treat a variety of other medical conditions, including:
- abnormal skin growths (such as warts)
- benign nerve growths
- cervical cancer, mainly as a method of prevention
- pinched nerves
- prostate cancer.
In cryotherapy, doctors locally freeze the nerve or skin growth to deaden the irritated nerve. Professionals freeze the affected area either by inserting a probe into the tissue or by applying a freezing agent to the skin.
When Cryotherapy Shouldn’t Be Used
Although the risks of cryotherapy are generally low, associated side effects may include:
- damage to underlying tissue
Cryotherapy should not be used if:
- a skin growth may be malignant (Malignant growths should be removed surgically for testing.)
- the area to be treated is susceptible to scarring or is in a noticeable location
- the patient has diabetes or may have a predisposition to infection
- the patient is planning to get pregnant (see section below)
- the patient has an intolerance or hypersensitivity to the cold.
Cryotherapy and Pregnancy
Patients who are pregnant or contemplating pregnancy need to make informed decisions regarding cryotherapy. Although the medical community has yet to provide any conclusive clinical evidence, some professionals believe that using cryotherapy to prevent cervical cancer may cause infertility.
Cryotherapy for sports-related injuries, however, should have no effect on potential pregnancy. Also, in some cases, cryotherapy may be the best treatment for pregnant women. For example, removing skin growths through cryotherapy during pregnancy may be safer than undergoing surgery.
For decades, both experts and amateurs alike have been using cold therapy to treat a variety of conditions. Because cryotherapy typically has minimal, if any, side effects, it will continue to be a mainstay in both sports medicine and other pain treatment techniques.