Home Therapies Cryotherapy: how treatment with cold works

Cryotherapy: how treatment with cold works

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 347 views

Cryotherapy (cold therapy) uses cold to treat various ailments and diseases The possible uses range from freezing warts to cold wraps and cold chambers. Here you can find out everything you need to know about the possible forms of treatment, when they are carried out and what the risks are. 

What is cryotherapy?

The Greek word “kryo” means “cold” – cryotherapy therefore refers to medical treatment using cold. It belongs to the so-called thermal therapies and has been used by people since ancient times. The temperature difference between the body and its surroundings or a cold object is used to cool it down as a whole or just in certain places. This essentially has the following effects:

  • Reduction in blood flow : During the first five to ten minutes of local cryotherapy, superficial vessels contract. If the cold acts for longer, vessels in deeper tissue layers also follow. This reduces the blood supply, which also reduces the accumulation of fluid (formation of edema).
  • Inhibition of inflammation : Long-term cryotherapy of one to two hours not only reduces blood flow, but also dampens metabolic and inflammatory processes.
  • Relief of pain : As the tissue cools down, it becomes less and less sensitive to pain – the subjective perception of pain decreases. If the skin has a temperature of 15 °C, it is completely pain-free.
  • Change in muscle tension (muscle tone) : Although muscle tension increases briefly during the first few seconds of cryotherapy, it progressively decreases over 15 to 20 minutes of exposure. This can help reduce pain.

Local cryotherapy

Local cryotherapy is carried out, for example, only on a joint or an extremity or on a very small area of ​​skin (e.g. warts). In addition to the effects mentioned above, the local cold treatment also triggers “remote effects”, i.e. changes in the body away from the cooled areas as a result of a counter-regulation of the body: Depending on the duration and intensity of the cryotherapy, the blood pressure can increase or the heart rate decrease (bradycardia). Breathing , muscles and the conduction speed of the nerves are also affected .

Whole body cryotherapy

In some cases, instead of just one part of the body, the entire organism is exposed to the cold. This can happen in a cold chamber, for example, into which the patient goes for a few minutes (see below).

When is cryotherapy performed?

Local cryotherapy is used, for example, to treat superficial skin changes, such as warts, acne or hemangiomas. In addition, it can be used, for example, for injuries (e.g. bruises, strains, broken bones), tennis elbow , heel spurs , inflammatory diseases of the musculoskeletal and supporting apparatus and rheumatism.

If a selected tissue area is surgically destroyed in a targeted manner using extreme cold (eg via a cryoprobe with liquid nitrogen), this is referred to as freezing (cryosurgery) . In addition to harmless warts, it can also be used to treat rapidly growing scar tissue, skin cancer (and precursors), other tumors (such as prostate cancer) and small areas of heart muscle tissue in cardiac arrhythmias.

Whole -body cryotherapy can also help with a wide variety of diseases. These include ligament, joint and muscle injuries, joint and spinal diseases caused by wear and tear (such as arthrosis ), rheumatic diseases (such as Bechterew’s disease), spastic muscle tension and fibromyalgia, neurodermatitis and psoriasis (psoriasis). The comprehensive pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effect of whole-body cryotherapy can also be useful after operations.

What do you do during cryotherapy?

The procedure depends on whether only a specific body area (local) or the entire body is treated with cold.

Local cryotherapy

Local cryotherapy can be performed with many different media (objects). Ultimately, all of them lead to a cooling of the tissue due to the heat withdrawal. The possible “coolants” differ in their own temperature, the duration of use and the areas of application. Examples:

  • Ice granules (about -0.5 to -1.0 °C) in a cloth bag that is placed on the skin: The skin temperature drops by 5 to 8 °C within 20 minutes.
  • Plastic ice pack with a mixture of water and ice (about 0 °C): The skin temperature is only about 10 °C after 20 minutes.
  • Partial ice bath (about 1 to 12 °C), for example in an arm or foot bath.
  • Ice roller with a stick (about -0.5 to -1.0 °C) for dabbing or rubbing off the skin, for example after previous lymphatic drainage .
  • Cold compresses (about 1 to 3 °C): are easily deformable and can be optimally adapted to joints, for example.
  • Gel packs (about -15 to -20 °C): A dry kitchen towel between the skin and the gel pack prevents superficial frostbite.
  • Cold spray (about -0.5 to -1.0 °C): The resulting evaporation cold has a strong cooling effect, but only for a short time. Cold sprays are usually used as a first measure for acute sports injuries.
  • cold gases (cold air with a temperature of -30 °C or nitrogen with a temperature of up to -160 °C): These are used in particular for rheumatic complaints.
  • Cold wrap (about 0 to 15 °C): Known as an old household remedy. A cold wrap can be made, for example, with kitchen towels soaked in ice water or with cool quark.
  • Cotton swab with liquid nitrogen (up to -195 °C): Soaked in liquid nitrogen before use and then pressed lightly on the area to be frozen (up to a maximum of 45 seconds)
  • Cryoprobe (up to -195 °C): Liquid nitrogen is passed through the probe. The area touched by the probe tip freezes and the tissue dies. The cold probe can be used on the skin or during operations inside the body.
  • Open spray process with liquid nitrogen (down to -195 °C): Liquid nitrogen is sprayed at high pressure onto the area to be frozen. However, the treatment field cannot be narrowed down as well as with cotton swabs or cryoprobes.

Whole body cryotherapy

In addition to local cryotherapy, whole-body therapy is also used. Here, too, there are various possibilities for exposure to the cold:

  • Cold chamber (about -70 to -120 °C): The patient puts on bathing suits to enter the cold chamber. Areas that are very sensitive to cold (hands, feet, face and ears) are covered. The treatment in a cold chamber lasts a maximum of three minutes, but can be repeated several times a day.
  • Ice immersion bath (approx. 1 to 12 °C): full bath in cold water with ice cubes. Exposure for several minutes, then rest in a pre-warmed bed. The ice immersion bath is often carried out in combination with physio treatments.

Depending on how cold the cold stimulus is, there may be accompanying symptoms – ranging from a feeling of cold to burning or stabbing pain. However, they usually last only for a short time.

Cold baths, as well as cold showers, fall within the realm of hydrotherapy . You can read more about this here .

Cold treatment as a home remedy

Some cold applications are carried out on your own as a quick home remedy. For example, someone who has bruised their knee can apply ice cubes wrapped in a cloth, a chilled seed pillow (cherry stone pillow) or a cold washcloth (cool, damp forehead compress) as a first aid measure. Soak the washcloth in cold water, wring it out and put it on. This can relieve the pain and prevent the tissue from swelling and bruising. Home remedies can also have a beneficial effect on headaches.

cold or cool quark compress can also provide quick relief for bruises – as well as for sprains and painfully inflamed joints (as a result of arthrosis). You can find out more about the effect and application of this home remedy in the article Quark wrap .

Cold wraps on the neck can relieve a sore throat, you can either use quark or put on the well-known Prießnitz neck wrap. You can read everything you need to know about this in the neck wrap article .

Fever can be gently reduced with cool calf wraps . The damp cold (or coolness) evaporates on the patient’s warm skin, thereby withdrawing heat from the body. You can read about how to prepare and use the wraps correctly and when they are not suitable in the article calf wraps .

Another antipyretic home remedy for cold treatment is the pulse wrap . To do this, dip cotton towels in cold water, wring them out and wrap them around your wrists and ankles.

A cold compress is also sometimes applied around the chest when there is a fever . This can also help against stuck bronchial mucus, for example. You can find out more about the effect and use of this thermal treatment in the article on the chest wrap .

Home remedies have their limits. If your symptoms persist over a long period of time, do not get better or even get worse, you should always consult a doctor.

What are the risks of cryotherapy?

The risks depend in part on the type of cryotherapy. For example, using ice packs, ice compresses, cold spray, ice immersion baths, etc. for too long or incorrectly can lead to frostbite.

With some cold applications, direct skin contact must be avoided, for example with ice compresses and ice bags: A layer of fabric between the compress / bag and the skin prevents frostbite.

In cryosurgery procedures, for example by the dermatologist, blistering and infections rarely occur after freezing. Pigment-forming cells (melanocytes) are usually also destroyed in the treated area, so that the skin color there remains changed over the long term.

If a patient has a so-called cryoglobulinemia, there is an increased amount of special proteins (IgM autoantibodies) in his blood. They become active at low temperatures and cause undesired cross-linking of red blood cells, which then dissolve (hemolysis). Therefore, if cryoglobulinemia is known, no cold therapy should be carried out.

Cryotherapy must also be avoided in the case of cold urticaria. In this condition, the skin reacts to contact with cold by forming itchy wheals.

Cryotherapy is also unsuitable for people with circulatory disorders such as Raynaud’s syndrome (abnormal blood flow to the fingers or toes). The same applies to sensory disorders, i.e. if someone can only perceive temperature stimuli (cold, heat) to a reduced extent (e.g. as a result of diabetes).

You can read more warnings about special applications such as neck or calf wraps in the respective articles.

What do I have to consider after cryotherapy?

During and after local cold application, the rest of the body should be kept warm. Heat is also advisable after whole-body cryotherapy (e.g. resting in a preheated bed).

After a local application of cold (eg at the dermatologist’s) you should keep the treated area as clean as possible and protect it with a plaster or bandage. If blisters form on your skin, do not puncture them! That would favor colonization with germs. It is better to consult your doctor if he has not already told you in advance what you should do in the event of a blister forming.

In general, the following applies: Follow the instructions of the doctor or therapist treating you with regard to what you should consider after cryotherapy (e.g. changing bandages regularly or applying an antiseptic ointment).

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