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Cryotherapy: The Scope of Cryo Treatment and it's Adverse Effects

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Introduction to Cryotherapy

As a medical student, I often find myself swamped by people in need of advice. From a frilly sneeze to a dislocated shoulder, everyone wants a professional opinion (And a second or third one to go with it, as well)

As such, I have noticed an increasing interest in the field of Cryotherapy or 'Cryo' as it is more commonly known, due to a rising trend of the use of various Cryo techniques. This change is possibly propelled by a surge of use of various cryotherapy treatments by celebrities and star athletes. With this in mind, I am writing this article with the goal of increasing general public awareness on this topic, which will hopefully result in better and more informed decisions being made by the average Joe.

So what is Cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy, like many other medical terms is derived from Greek words. Cryo means cold, while therapy means cure.

Thus, Cryotherapy refers to usage of low temperatures, both locally (on a single body part or area) and systemically (on the general body) in the cure or treatment of a variety of medical conditions.

A Cryotherapy set that uses carbon dioxide vapours
Credit: Ciacho5, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A Cryotherapy set that uses carbon dioxide vapours

Applications of Cryotherapy

Now that we understand the concept of and the principle behind Cryotherapy, let us look at some of it's important clinical applications, along with their advantages and the risks or side effects associated with them.

1. Cryosurgery

This is the most prominent and well-known application. The principle is to use extreme cold to destroy and subsequently remove diseased and damaged tissue, by causing ice crystals to form within cells due to freezing of intracellular fluid.

It is used to treat malignancies such as Morton’s neuroma, some small skin cancers, liver cancer, lung cancer, oral cancers and perhaps most importantly,prostate cancer as well. It tends to be more effective in smaller tumors, mostly benign tumors which are localized and lacking metastasis.

The freezing of intracellular fluid and subsequent tearing apart of the cells due to ice crystals can also be used to damage and remove unwanted, but otherwise normal tissues like warts and moles.

Cryotherapy equipment used includes Brymill, Cryoclear and CryoPen.

Advantages

  • It is a minimally invasive procedure, and tends to be preferred by most healthcare professionals over traditional surgeries due to this.
  • Pain is minimal.
  • Low frequency and degree of scarring
  • Cost is reasonable

 

Medical cryotherapy gun used to treat skin lesions.
Credit: Warfieldian, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Medical cryotherapy gun used to treat skin lesions.

Cryotherapy tank filled with liquid nitrogen
Credit: Ciacho5, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Cryotherapy tank filled with liquid nitrogen

2. Ice pack therapy

Ice pack therapy is commonly used with both simple household and domestic applications; as well as application in high intensity situations in professional sport. It helps to alleviate pain due to minor injuries, especially those of a muscular nature.

 

It involves placing an ice pack over the injured area of the body (mainly in cases of traumatic injury) which then absorbs the heat from the region. The cold temperature produced by the ice causes vasoconstriction (reducing the amount of various inflammatory mediators reaching the area), decreased enzymatic activity in the affected area, reduction in metabolism, reduced oxygen demand and overall reduction in inflammation, i.e. redness and swelling of the area are markedly reduced.

Advantages

  • Cheap
  • Easily accessible and readily available
  • Medical expertise required for correct and safe application is not very high
  • Quite effective

3 .Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC)

It consists of exposing the entire general body surface of an individual to extremely cold dry air at a temperature of around -100 °C for a period of 2-4 minutes. It is considered as an alternative to ice pack therapy or cold water immersion.

Its usage includes treatment for multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis (Autoimmune and inflammatory disorders) due to it's potent anti-inflammatory action as well as reducing muscle soreness and pain in athletes after intense physical activity.

It has also been claimed to accelerate metabolism and help in weight management as well as maintain healthier skin and reducing skin blemishes and slowing down it's ageing, though support for these claims via clinical reports and studies is scarce.

Advantages

  • Decreases Fatigue, Soreness & Inflammation
  • Accelerates Recovery, Improves Performance
  • Reduces Chronic Pain & Chronic Fatigue
A cryotherapy chamber.
Credit: RudolfSimon, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A cryotherapy chamber

Adverse effects/ Side effects

As is the case with any medical therapy, some adverse effects of the treatment need to be watched out for and quickly controlled. In the case of cryo, side effects include:

  • Damage to nearby healthy tissue due to the cold (Nerve damage being a particularly concerning risk).
  • Redness and minor pain that is localized to treated area.
  • Blisters due to the severe freezing temperature.
  • In October 2015, an accident at a Nevada cryotherapy center led to the death of a worker in a full-body cryotherapy chamber, which contained air at below freezing temperatures. Chelsea Ake-Salvacion was found dead in one of the center's tanks, having entered it at the end of the previous working day alone and without supervision. The cause of death was found to be suffocation by the coroner. This cannot be labeled as an adverse effect or an actual risk and should be treated as an easily preventable accident and rare case. Proper care and supervision must always be maintained when dealing with potentially hazardous medical equipment.

Conclusion: Cryotherapy in your life

I hope I was able to make this exciting and rapidly growing field of medicine a little simpler for everyone to understand; and was able to make information about it's applications, adverse effects and it's potential role in your own life a little more accessible.

This article is meant to serve as a good research tool for anyone contemplating the usage of 'Cryo' (Cryotherapy) for various medical purposes and to help them weigh the benefits against the potential risks, thus helping them make a well- informed decision.

Feel free to drop drop a comment,additional facts or a query in the comment section below.

Always consult your Doctor.

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please do not begin any medical therapy without consulting your doctor or without his supervision.

 

References

Davidson's Principles and Practice of Medicine 22nd Edition.

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Bibliography

  1. Brian R. Walker, Nicki R. Colledge, Stuart H. Ralston Davidson's Principles and Practice of Medicine 22nd Edition. Edinburgh: Elsevier, 2014.

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