Cryotherapy and ice bath: what are the differences?

Cryotherapy and ice bath: what are the differences? - photo

Historically, treatment with cold has been associated with ice packs and ice baths. These methods of treating inflammation and muscle soreness have been known for centuries. With the invention of the cryotherapy chamber in 1980, it became possible to subject individuals to whole-body cryotherapy for a more profound, lasting effect. In spite of this, many athletes still use ice baths to recover between competitions. Let’s see what cryotherapy and ice baths have in common and what are the main differences.

Cold is a well-known pain reducer and immune system stimulator
Cold is a well-known pain reducer and immune system stimulator

Basic principles of cold treatment

Cold is a well-known pain reducer and immune system stimulator. It works this way: upon exposure to low temperatures, the body boosts regenerative mechanisms and fully activates the immune system. Painkillers such as endorphins are released into the blood, and the activity of inflammatory mediators, i.e. histamine and serotonin, falls.

So, in general, cold treatment reduces the sensitivity of skin receptors and the conductivity of nerve fibers and results in a noticeable analgesic effect.

That is why cold treatment has been widely used in professional sports where injuries can happen any time before, during and after the competition.

How long does it take to be exposed to cold for the desired effect?

As for ice baths, research shows that they are effective only with a systematic approach when applied repeatedly for 10 minutes at least. In practice, it means people have to spend 10 to 15 minutes in cold water (between 7° and 12°C) with ice. Needless to say, it can become an ordeal.

In contrast, due to much lower temperatures (-110° to -170°C), a whole-body cryotherapy session lasts only about 3 minutes and does not cause long-lasting discomfort. 

How an ice bath is different from a cryotherapy session?

While in an ice bath your body actually feels like it is freezing, the main cryotherapy benefit is that it “tricks” the body into applying healing mechanisms without experiencing penetrating cold. During a cryotherapy session, the user does not feel the discomfort of staying in ice water, as nitrogen vapor has low thermal conductivity and does not overchill the body. 

The result is a more comfortable healing experience where the total time your body is exposed to cold air in the whole-body cryotherapy session never exceeds 3 minutes.

Taking an ice bath is a nightmare for football players
Taking an ice bath is a nightmare for football players

How much does whole-body cryotherapy cost?

The price of an ice bath is definitely lower than a cryotherapy session. Still, bear in mind all the benefits, which justify the higher price of whole-body cryotherapy:

  • comfort – in a cryosauna, a user wears cotton underwear and fur boots; contact with cold air creates no discomfort or extreme feelings, unlike ice water.
  • short exposure – staying 3 minutes in cold air makes a whole world of difference to staying 10 minutes in ice water. 
  • efficiency – a cryotherapy course (10-20 sessions) is comparable to 2 to 3 years of ice bathing.
  • systemic effect – a cryo chamber session is not only useful for faster recovery and better healing but also helps improve the quality of life in many chronicle conditions linked to inflammation and pain, like rheumatism, arthritis, fibromyalgia, spondylitis, psoriasis.

Naturally, ice packs are useful for domestic injuries like minor burns or, for example, bruises. But for sports medicine, healthcare or dermatology centers, beauty salons, spas, wellness or fitness centers, whole-body and local cryotherapy offer a modern, efficient and in the long run much more beneficial alternative to ice baths and ice packs.