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What is cryotherapy and how does it work?

Cryotherapy uses sub-zero temperatures to treat everything from warts to cancer – but what’s actually involved? We take a look at common uses and how it works.

What is cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy is a form of treatment that uses cold temperatures to therapeutic effect. It can be used locally, in a highly targeted way, or more generally, to trigger your whole body to respond in a certain way.

Localised cryotherapy can include the use of ice packs or ice massage, coolant sprays or ice baths, or even special probes that lower the temperature of your tissue.

Whole-body cryotherapy, on the other hand, immerses your entire person in extremely low temperatures for a few minutes. This can offer health benefits for your whole body.

How does cryotherapy work?

Cryotherapy is a general term that refers to treatment using cold temperatures. It’s also known as cold therapy. The way it works and the experience of treatment will vary depending on what you are being treated for.

We’ve given an overview of the three main types of cryotherapy and what to expect from treatment.

Cryotherapy for cancer

Cryotherapy can be used to treat and help prevent various types of cancer. You may also hear it referred to as cryosurgery or cryoablation. It uses extreme cold to kill the cancer cells, and it works locally to target the cancer, rather than involving the whole body.

It can be an effective cancer treatment, although more research is needed into whether it’s as effective as other treatments at preventing recurrences.

To treat skin cancer using cryotherapy, a doctor sprays or swabs liquid nitrogen onto the cancerous area. Liquid nitrogen is very, very cold and it freezes the area, killing the cancer cells. The skin forms a scab and then the scab falls off along with the dead cancer cells.

Cryotherapy is also used to treat abnormal or pre-cancerous cells on the cervix. A doctor or specialist nurse uses an instrument called a cryoprobe inside the vagina, to cover the abnormal area with liquid nitrogen. This freezes and destroys the cells.

A cryoprobe can also be used to treat cancers inside the body, by inserting it inside or next to the tumour.

Cryotherapy for skin conditions 

Cryotherapy can be used to treat localised skin conditions such as warts and verrucas. A doctor will usually recommend this if over-the-counter treatments containing salicylic acid have failed.

Cryotherapy for skin conditions involves freezing the affected area with liquid nitrogen. A scab forms over the treated area, which later falls off along with the dead cells. It can take a few sessions to work completely.

After treatment, most people find that the skin looks completely normal with no sign of were the lesion used to be. However, in some cases cryotherapy can leave a white mark or scar which can be permanent.

Whole-body cryotherapy

Whole-body cryotherapy is used to treat chronic pain from conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis, as well as general ligament and muscle pain. The treatment uses extremely low temperatures (below minus 80 degrees centigrade) to stimulate the body.

At Circle Health Group, we use WBC to treat medical conditions including:

  • rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis
  • frozen shoulder
  • fibromyalgia
  • tendonitis
  • muscle and ligament strains
  • skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema

During a WBC session, you enter a pod in a swimming costume or shorts and t-shirt, along with socks, gloves and mouth and ear protection that your physiotherapist will provide. The cold air in pod cools the skin to around five degrees Celsius, triggering the release of endorphins and inducing the body’s natural pain relief system.

This process can relieve pain and inflammation associated with various health conditions, for several weeks at a time.

It is also increasingly used by elite athletes to aid recovery, condition muscles and get the most out of their training.

Is cryotherapy right for me?

Although cryotherapy is most commonly used to treat skin conditions, cancer, or muscle and ligament pain, studies suggest that it can be an effective treatment for other problems too, including migraines, nerve issues, mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, and even certain types of dementia.

If you are interested in cryotherapy but don’t know whether it’s right for you, why not seek the medical advice of a specialist? Our multidisciplinary team can talk you through the potential benefits of cryotherapy both short and long term, as well as any potential side effects.