Cryotherapy to relieve rheumatism symptoms: an approach worth trying?

Some spas and fitness centers tout whole-body cryotherapy as a way to reduce inflammation and pain from rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or rheumatism. Is this spot freezing treatment effective?

It almost sounds too good to be true. Specialty health resorts, spas, medical centers are touting whole body cryotherapy as a way to reduce the symptoms of rheumatism, namely inflammation, swelling and pain.

At first glance, this seems logical. After all, cold therapy, usually in the form of ice packs, is often recommended for sore joints. But cryotherapy is not just cold. It is well below the freezing point. The temperature at which water freezes is 0 degrees Celsius. Whole body cryotherapy temporarily exposes the skin to temperatures as low as minus 95-100 degrees Celsius.

Little evidence in favor of whole body cryotherapy

Although athletes and celebrities have touted the benefits of cryotherapy for their health and well-being, there is little documentation of the tangible effects of extreme cold or the long-term side effects of this treatment. You can read here or there about the ability of cryotherapy to help muscles recover after injury or overuse. But in an analysis published in August 2021 in the European Journal of Applied Physiology: “Cryotherapy-induced reductions in metabolism, inflammation and tissue damage have been demonstrated in animal models of muscle injury; however, comparable evidence in humans is lacking. »

A study that looked at the effect of cryotherapy on people with rheumatoid arthritis did not find a beneficial effect. Sixty people were randomized to receive either cryotherapy at minus 166 degrees F, minus 75 degrees C, or cryotherapy on a single localized area. Each treatment was given three times a day for a week, with rheumatologists then measuring the antioxidant capacity of the blood. People who received the coldest treatment did experience a short-term increase in this ability, but none of the other groups did, and the effects didn’t last all week. “Cold treatments did not cause significant oxidative stress or adaptation for a week,” the study authors conclude in the September 2017 issue of Rheumatology International.

More positive results were found in a small Polish study looking at another inflammatory autoimmune disease, ankylosing spondylitis (AS), published in October 2018 in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. Again, just over 60 people were randomized to receive both low temperature treatments, and there was also a control group receiving no cryotherapy treatment. After eight days of intervention, people in the coldest cryotherapy group reported a subjective decrease in disease activity at statistically higher rates than the others.

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Cryotherapy treatment takes place in a small reservoir

In a cryotherapy spa, you wear minimal clothing and are exposed to the cold by standing alone in a tub that covers everything but your head. Or, in some places, you walk into a specialized room with several other people. A substance such as liquid nitrogen is pumped in, but since it turns to gas when frozen, you don’t really feel it.

A few points of vigilance before trying this approach

What you feel, according to people who have tried it, is the sensation of cold air blowing, then the chattering of your teeth as if you were outside on a freezing day, and a few more seconds when your body starts to look like an ice cube. There are probably few or no downsides except that cryotherapy is not cheap. This is because most cryotherapy treatment centers recommend going several times a week for a long time, and the payouts add up quickly.

People with severe Raynaud’s syndrome, a comorbid condition of rheumatoid arthritis, in which the small blood vessels in the fingers or toes constrict when exposed to cold, should probably stay away.

If you want to try cryotherapy, look for a reputable place. If you decide to give it a try, look for a cryotherapy center with many positive reviews on review sites. You can also inquire about the center owner’s medical background. Since no degree is currently required, owners can range from someone with a medical degree (ideal) to someone with absolutely no medical knowledge.

It’s always a good idea to discuss therapies like cryotherapy with your doctor before trying it. And as with all complementary approaches, it should never replace therapeutic options whose safety and efficacy have been established.

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