The Therapeutic Uses of Cryotherapy
by Jason Colenzo
Everyone who is active in fitness in some form or another will experience some sort of pain, swelling, or spasm. To deal with these issues within the first 48-72, cryotherapy, or cold treatment, is your go to modality.
Cryotherapy comes in numerous forms, but the central point of all the applications is that it relieves pain and reduces swelling. This is caused by the phenomenon of vasoconstriction, or the narrowing of blood vessels. Less blood flow to an area will prevent the occurrence of swelling or edema. Cryotherapy comes in 5 stages as treatment progresses, from the initial cold feeling, to burning, aching, analgesia (pain relief) and numbness. Cryotherapy can be easily applied by just about anyone, and is great for post workout soreness. It also acts by enforcing a nerve conduction block, which helps to slow down the velocity of the nerves, and that helps alleviate spasm.
Here are 3 common varieties of cryotherapy treatment:
1) Ice pack
This is probably the most common application of cold treatment. Its versatile, it can contour to uneven surfaces of the body, and its easy to set up. Just take some crushed ice, put it in some sort of plastic zip lock or bed sheet, wrap it with a towel, and you’re good to go. Great for ankle injuries, shoulder injuries, and just common acute aches and pains.
2) Ice popsicle
Just as the title says, it literally is a popsicle, just without the cherry flavor. Take a popsicle stick and put it in a cup of water (Dixie cup works good for this) and put it in the freezer. When it’s ready, take it out of the cup and you have a perfect ice popsicle to use for cold treatment. This is a convenient way to ice smaller areas of the body like around the knee, calf, elbow, etc. In a clinical setting, it allows a therapist to see the progress of the acute injury while giving treatment to the patient. The cold for this treatment is also more intense because it has no towel wrapped around it.
The cryocuff is an innovative piece of equipment that combines cold with compression. To use one, you put it around the appropriate body part (in the case of the picture above, the ankle) and you fill the water cooler with ice and cold water. You attach the hose from the water cooler to the cuff, and let the water flow into it. It’ll feel like water is seeping all over you, but its all contained within the cuff. The water builds up and adds compression, which is great for treating swelling. In the case of the ankle, you’d want to elevate it above your heart to have the blood flow away from the area.
As with any treatment there are also contraindications and precautions. If you have blood in your urine after using cold, refrain from using it again. If you get digital cyanosis, where your fingers turn paleish blue, stay away from cold. Chronic edema due to poor circulation is also a contraindication as additional vasoconstriction on the area would worsen the situation. Avoid placing cold treatment directly on regenerating nerves as this will slow down the regeneration process. Also use precaution when placing a cold pack on a superficial (shallow area) branch of a nerve, making sure to monitor numbness and tingling.
If you or someone you love has experienced an acute injury with pain and swelling, recommend cryotherapy. Get the relief you deserve!
Cryocuff photo courtesy of http://www.bodyclock.co.uk/acatalog/Cryocuff_Ankle.jpg
Cameron, M. Physical Agents in Rehabilitation 3rd Edition. “Thermal Agents: Cold and Heat” Saunders Elsevier. pgs. 131-152 (2009)