Cryotherapy: Should athletes and active people use it for recovery?

I love exercise and do it every day. But as I get older, I often struggle to recover from those workouts. For the last year or so, I have tried a number of recovery treatments, including whole-body cryotherapy. Both from my personal experience and from research on it I’ve done for a book I’m working on, I have thoughts on the risks and benefits of cryotherapy. After recent news about Antonio Brown’s development of frostbite from a cryotherapy session, I decided to write about it for my newspaper column.

Antonio Brown reportedly developed frostbite after cryotherapy

Last week brought one of the stranger news stories of the year – All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown developed frostbite on his feet from cryotherapy.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter initially reported the Oakland Raiders receiver missed three days of training camp to see a foot specialist. After Brown posted a picture of what appeared to be large blisters on the soles of both feet, Chris Simms of Pro Football Talk speculated he could have a fungal condition. Someone close to Brown then told Simms the receiver had developed frostbite from a session of cryotherapy in France.

Stranger still, the source claimed Brown’s frostbite resulted from not wearing “proper footwear” in the cryo chamber.

In the weeks since the story broke, three main questions have surfaced. Why would Brown not wear “proper footwear” in cryotherapy? How could he, or any athlete, suffer frostbite? And why is cryotherapy so popular with athletes in the first place?

In full disclosure, I’ve done cryotherapy several times a week for about a year.

Also read:
Whole body cryotherapy for faster recovery

What is cryotherapy, and is it dangerous?

When you do a session of whole-body cryotherapy, you spend up to three minutes in a chamber well below minus-100°C. Businesses that run these chambers require you to wear gloves, socks, and slippers or boots they provide. Without knowing the specifics of Brown’s session, it seems odd someone would allow him to step in the chamber without those socks and slippers.

Where I can imagine issues with frostbite, though, comes from your socks. On a couple of occasions, I went straight from the gym to cryotherapy. Instead of wearing their socks, I left my workout socks on. Within seconds, my feet were bitter cold.

Cryo is difficult, but it’s not painful. But with socks that are even slightly damp with sweat, it’s really uncomfortable. Fortunately, I didn’t suffer frostbite, but I can easily see how it could happen.

Is cryotherapy effective for exercise recovery?

As to the larger question of why cryotherapy is so popular, look no further than pro athletes like Antonio Brown. Active people across the world try it to recover faster from their training because pro teams and athletes use it.

Some of the proposed benefits include reduced inflammation, increased energy, increased testosterone, improved metabolism and weight loss, decrease pain and muscle soreness, less depression, anxiety and insomnia and more. With those possible results, it’s no wonder cryotherapy has become a $3 billion per year industry worldwide.

Unfortunately, scientific studies have failed to conclusively show a real benefit to whole-body cryotherapy for muscle recovery. While some small studies have shown decreased self-reported muscle soreness or improved subjective recovery, few well-designed studies have shown significant improvements in inflammatory, hormonal or muscle damage markers.

Why it’s hard to prove or disprove the benefits of cryotherapy

It’s worth noting that it’s hard to perform high-quality research studies on cryotherapy. The gold standard for a research study is a randomized, double-blinded study. It’s hard to randomize subjects because they want the real treatment. And it’s impossible to blind them so that they don’t know if they’re receiving the treatment or not. If you’re standing in a chamber with -187°C air blowing, you know it.

Another point to consider is the idea of belief and perceived benefits. I’ve seen this issue both in my research on whole-body cryotherapy and other recovery treatments (infrared sauna, compression boots, flotation tanks, etc.) for a book I’m writing and from trying them myself.

Cryo makes many athletes feel like they have recovered from tough workouts better and quicker. Those perceived benefits can be important. If you wake up the next day and you believe you can train harder, that’s a good thing.

After all, the goal of training is to push your body harder so that you get faster and stronger. If cryo helps you feel like you can train harder, then even without objective changes in your muscles or blood, it might help you.

Also read:
The health benefits of cold exposure

My experience with whole-body cryotherapy

For the last three months, I’ve been doing strength and sprinting workouts with a former Olympic gold medalist who trains a number of pro athletes, including – ironically – Antonio Brown.

I stopped doing regular cryo about six weeks ago – not because I didn’t like it – but because of my schedule. I realized I actually recover better and train harder the next day if I do NOT spend three minutes in the cryo chamber after my workouts. But that’s just my experience. You might have better results.

If you’re considering cryotherapy to recover from sports and exercise, try it and see how it works for you. Just make sure to wear dry socks.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the August 13, 2019 issue of The Post and Courier.

References:

Simms: Antonio Brown got frostbitten feet in a cryotherapy machine. By Mike Florio. Pro Football Talk. NBCSports.com. August 6, 2019.

Antonio Brown injury news: Raiders WR to see foot specialist. By Michael Shapiro. SI.com. August 3, 2019.

Cryotherapy Market Size. Global Industry Report, 2024. October 2016.