Cryotherapy for Chronic Pain

by Christina Lasich, MD Health Professional

Have you ever wondered why members of the Polar Bear Clubs dive into frigid waters during the dead of winter? You've probably seen those scantly clad men and women with just one word on your mind to describe them: "Crazy". But perhaps, they are not so crazy after all because immersion into cold water is a really a form of cryotherapy. The use of cold for the benefit of health is found world wide from athletic locker rooms to doctor's offices. Could cryotherapy benefit you?

Lately, researchers have been studying the potential health benefits of cryotherapy using cold air chambers. Volunteers are exposed to extremely cold (-1100c to -1400c) air for up to three minutes. The delicate body parts like the hands and feet are protected while the rest of the body experiences a sudden drop in temperature. After a few sessions, the body experiences measurable changes that can help to relieve pain.

The analgesic (pain-relieving) effects of cryotherapy are related to three specific changes in the body. First, the nerve signal transmission is slowed. Reducing the amount of nerve signals getting through to the brain might relieve pain in some individuals. Second, nor-epinephrine levels increase after cold immersion. This stress-induced chemical reduces pain sensitivity as a protective mechanism in times of life-or-death situations.1 And lastly, cryotherapy can reduce pain intensity and frequency by reducing inflammation. All of these potential benefits can be measured in the lab, but how does cryotherapy measure up in the real world?

Arthritic joints, frozen shoulders, muscle injuries and other types of painful conditions have all been found to benefit from cryotherapy.2, 3, 4 People with these conditions experience less pain and are able to return to normal activities sooner. How much cold is necessary and for how long are still questions being worked out. Not everyone has access to expensive cold air chambers, but a little cold could go a long ways towards helping those with chronic pain.

How could you experiment with cryotherapy in your life? In some parts of the world, the wintertime is an easy time to have access to the local cold air or water. While protecting your sensitive parts, you could expose the rest of your parts to brief periods of time exposed to the cold. Or cyrotherapy could be as convenient as reaching into your freezer for a frozen sack of peas. Applied for just 20 minutes at a time, ice has long been heralded as a pain reliever. Your friends and family members may think your crazy, but you'll know that some things like cryotherapy might be worth a try in order to live with less pain.

  1. Scand J Clin Lab Invest. 2008;68(2):145-53

  2. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2013 Jan;94(1):9-16

  3. Sports Med. 2010 Jun 1;40(6):509-17

  4. Clin Exp Rheumatol. 2006 May-Jun;24(3):295-301

Christina Lasich, MD
Meet Our Writer
Christina Lasich, MD

Christina Lasich, M.D., wrote about chronic pain and osteoarthritis for HealthCentral. She is physiatrist in Grass Valley, California. She specializes in pain management and spine rehabilitation.