What Is Whole-Body Cryotherapy?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on March 21, 2024
9 min read

Cryotherapy is an umbrella term for any wellness or medical treatment that uses freezing or near freezing cold temperatures. Also called cold therapy, it includes using ice, cold water, or cold air. 

For centuries, people have used cold temperatures for overall health, to treat injuries, and to recover from sports. The use of cryotherapy can be traced as far back as ancient Greece. In 1979, Japanese professor Toshio Yamauchi designed the first cryosauna.

Whole-body cryotherapy

In recent years, whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) has gained popularity as a wellness hack for physical and mental well-being. WBC is a kind of cryogenic therapy where you expose your body to very cold temperatures for a short time. 

The theory behind WBC is that the extreme cold helps reduce inflammation in your body and reduces your pain or other symptoms. Supporters of the treatment argue that it works the same way as using ice application to ease swelling. 

Unlike cryotherapy for medical treatments such as wart removal, whole-body cryotherapy for physical or mental wellness is not well researched. And the FDA has not approved WBC to treat any medical conditions or for post-exercise recovery. 

Athletes who use cryotherapy to improve sports performance may refer to it as cryostimulation. This can include both whole-body cryotherapy and cold-water immersion. It’s unclear whether pre-exercise WBC can improve physical performance. 

Medical cryotherapy

Medical cryotherapy is any cold treatment used for medical purposes to treat or manage health conditions. Medical cryotherapy treatments are backed by science. They have gone through rigorous clinical trials to determine their safety and efficacy and are cleared by the FDA for use as medical therapies. Cryotherapy treatments used for medical purposes are administered by doctors or other health care providers. 

Cryotherapy used for therapeutic wellness is not a medical treatment to treat or manage a health condition. Cryotherapy treatments you get at a spa or gym are not FDA-approved to treat or manage physical or mental health conditions.  

It’s unclear exactly how cryotherapy works to reduce joint and muscle pain, soreness, and swelling. In theory, cold therapy reduces nerve conduction – the electrical signals, including pain signals, that travel through our nerves. It appears to lower levels of inflammation and oxidative stress. 

Cold therapy is thought to stimulate your sympathetic nervous system, your body’s flight or fight response, causing a release of noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter and hormone that’s been shown to reduce pain signals in studies done on animals. 

Several studies have found cryotherapy lowered oxidative stress. It also lowered inflammation by reducing the production and release of pro-inflammatory substances while increasing the production and release of anti-inflammatory substances.

Exposing the skin and muscle to cold causes your blood vessels to constrict and lower peripheral blood flow, which may help decrease inflammation and swelling after an injury or exercise. Cold exposure may also lower enzyme activity and metabolism. 

It’s difficult to test whether cryotherapy works or whether there’s a bias or placebo effect. Unlike testing to see whether a drug works where study participants are blinded -- meaning they don’t know whether they've been given the active drug or a placebo pill -- it’s not possible to blind study participants in cryotherapy studies. They know they are getting the active treatment. 

Whole-body cryotherapy (WBC)

Whole-body cryotherapy is not a medical treatment. You don’t need a doctor to prescribe it for you. You can get WBC at gyms, spas, and wellness centers. But keep in mind it isn't an FDA-approved treatment for any condition.

Places that offer cryotherapy have special rooms, tanks, or chambers that are cooled to extremely low temperatures. They may be as cold as -200 to -300 degrees Fahrenheit. You will stand in the cooled space for 2 to 4 minutes. After the treatment, some cryotherapy centers give you a robe or hot beverage to warm up.

Most tanks are shoulder height. Your head usually stays at room temperature, but some tanks enclose your entire body. Some cryotherapy chambers fit two or more people so you can book a session with friends or family. 

You need to wear protective coverings on your hands, feet, and ears. A disposable mask protects your mouth and nose. Most people only wear underwear and sports bras in addition to these. Underwire bras are not allowed in cryotherapy enclosures because the metal can freeze and burn your skin. 

Cold water immersion (CWI)

Cold water immersion dates back to ancient times, too. Hippocrates believed swimming in cold water could restore physical and mental energy. Thomas Jefferson soaked his feet in cold water every morning to "maintain his good health." 

Today, cold water immersion, including cold water plunges, winter swims, and ice baths, have gained popularity for overall well-being. CWI is a popular way to recover after sports or exercise. Many pro athletes use CWI, believing it reduces muscle stiffness and fatigue and decreases exercise-induced muscle damage after sports performance or high-intensity workouts. 

Whether cold water immersion can have benefits to physical and mental health is an ongoing debate. More studies are needed to prove these benefits. 

An analysis of 28 studies on how CWI affects recovery after strenuous exercise found it is better than other recovery methods, including active recovery and warm water therapy, to recover from muscle soreness and perceived recovery. But whole-body cryotherapy in cryogenic chambers was more effective than CWI for muscle strength recovery. 

Another analysis of 52 studies found CWI was effective at reducing delayed-onset muscle soreness 24 hours after high intensity exercise. It also improved perception of recovery. Both groups of studies stress the need for more research before drawing conclusions on whether CWI can improve athletic performance and recovery.

The risks of CWI include hypothermia and heart and lung problems. 

Ice application

Doctors have long used traditional cryotherapy -- the use of ice bags or gel packs -- to reduce pain and swelling following surgery, injury, or trauma. Medical applications include:

  • Ice bag or gel pack following orthopedic surgery, including total knee replacement or hip replacement, to reduce pain
  • Ice bag or gel pack placed on your face following oral surgery to reduce pain
  • Cold compress, cold cloth, ice bag or gel pack, placed on the forehead during migraine. 
  • Cold caps to prevent hair loss from chemotherapy, also called scalp hypothermia. The FDA has cleared Amma, DigniCap, and Paxman for use in cancer patients. 


Cryosurgery has been around since the 1800s. It is any treatment that uses extreme cold produced by liquid nitrogen or argon gas to freeze off or destroy abnormal tissue. As a local treatment, cryosurgery is directed toward a specific part of your body. As it freezes tissue, cryosurgery causes cells in the treated area to die. Cryoablation is another name for cryosurgery. 

Dermatologists have long used cryosurgery to remove benign or precancerous skin lesions, including:

  • Molluscum contagiosum, or water warts
  • Hypertrophic/keloid scars
  • Seborrheic keratosis
  • Skin tags
  • Solar lentigo
  • Verruca

Cancer doctors use cryosurgery to treat tumors on the skin and certain visible tumors inside the body. These include:

  • Skin cancers, including basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas
  • Skin lesions from AIDS-related Kaposi sarcoma
  • Retinoblastoma, a cancer of the retina in children
  • Early-stage prostate cancer
  • Bone cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Non-small-cell lung cancer
  • Liver cancer that hasn’t spread
  • Other skin growths and abnormal cell changes that can turn into cancer

Research has shown that whole-body cryotherapy may help in the treatment or management of:

  • Chronic back pain
  • Depression as an add-on treatment to antidepressants
  • Fibromyalgia to ease fatigue and musculoskeletal pain, using WBC
  • Tinnitus
  • Multiple sclerosis, specifically for fatigue management with WBC, and for pain relief before physical therapy using WBC, CWI, or cold application
  • Obesity 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

For several of these conditions, the studies showed benefits only after several rounds of WBC, not just after one use. And studies on how cryotherapy affects these and other medical conditions are still ongoing. More research is needed to determine how and whether WBC actually works for these conditions and how often you would need to do it to achieve benefits. The FDA has not approved whole-body cryotherapy or cold-water immersion to treat any medical condition. 

The manufacturers of cryotherapy tanks and businesses that offer the service claim whole-body cryotherapy can help with many health issues. Cryotherapy is marketed to suggest it can improve symptoms of:

Some supporters of the therapy say that it can help with weight loss and insomnia. Others claim it can improve your circulation, boost your metabolism, and ease pain after a workout.

Is whole-body cryotherapy effective?

The FDA has not tested any of the medical claims about whole-body cryotherapy and warns people to use caution when trying it. The agency has not approved the tanks as a treatment for any health conditions.

The FDA looked at a few studies on the effects of whole-body cryotherapy. It decided that they don't show real evidence of the therapy helping with any medical conditions.

Other studies show that whole-body cryotherapy might help with pain from sports injuries. Cryotherapy might help with the following issues:

Inflammation. Cryotherapy can bring your skin and muscle temperature down. This may help with pain and swelling. The effect is similar to using ice packs.

Recovery from exercise. Cryotherapy may reduce soreness after a workout. It does not seem to improve exercise performance for your next workout. Nor does it reduce the amount of muscle damage caused by intense exercise.

Joint conditions. Cryotherapy might be helpful for a frozen shoulder. This is a condition where your shoulder locks up and won't move.

You should talk to your doctor if you are considering whole-body cryotherapy. Extreme cold has risks for everyone. If you have underlying medical conditions, the treatment may not be safe for you.

Reported risks of whole-body cryotherapy are rare but include:

  • Cerebral bleeding, a reported case in someone with preexisting ocular migraine
  • Discomfort and dizziness
  • Headache
  • High blood pressure
  • Frostbite. This is the most common skin injury caused by WBC. Frostbite can lead to permanent tissue damage and occurs when your skin, and sometimes the tissue beneath, freezes.
  • Frozen limb. In one reported case, a woman developed a frozen arm after a 3-minute session. As her arm thawed, she developed painful blisters, swelling, and third-degree burns, a type of severe frostbite.
  • Long-lasting shivering
  • Rash called cold panniculitis. This type of rash happens when cold injures your fatty tissue, the deepest layers of your skin. It may take a few days after the WBC to develop. The rash looks like tiny, hard bumps or raised and scaly patches. It can also cause deep lumps in your skin. Cold panniculitis takes several weeks to heal. 
  • Sudden and temporary loss of memory
  • Urticaria, or hives

Who should avoid WBC?

In general, you should avoid WBC if you have:

  • Acute renal and urinary disorders
  • Allergy symptoms related to cold
  • Cardiovascular or respiratory system diseases
  • Circulatory problems, including a history of blood clots or deep vein thrombosis
  • Claustrophobia
  • Fever 
  • Acute respiratory illness
  • Had a heart attack within the last 6 months
  • Have a pacemaker or other implantable device
  • Neuropathy or nerve damage
  • An open wound, skin infections, or wound-healing problems
  • Serious cognitive disturbances
  • Seizure disorders
  • Severe anemia or wasting disease
  • Substance use disorder and current alcohol or drug use
  • Untreated high blood pressure
  • Unstable angina

The extreme cold may also aggravate your other health conditions, including:

There may be other health conditions where it’s not safe for you to use WBC. Don’t do WBC if you're pregnant. If you're interested in WBC, talk to your doctor first to make sure it's safe for you.

Cryotherapy, or cold therapy, is any wellness or medical treatment that uses extremely cold temperatures. Whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) has become popular in recent years as a hack for physical and mental wellness. While medical uses of cryotherapy, such as to remove warts or skin cancer, are FDA-approved, WBC is not FDA-approved to treat any medical condition. If you are considering WBC, talk to your doctor first to make sure it’s safe for you. 

What are the negatives of cryotherapy? 

The negatives of cryotherapy depend on the type. Risks of whole-body cryotherapy are rare, but skin injuries are the most common side effect.

Who should not do whole-body cryotherapy? 

You may have a preexisting or untreated condition that can increase your risk of serious complications from WBC. Talk to your doctor before doing whole-body cryotherapy to make sure it's safe for you