Interested in improving your recovery and overall general health? Should you be taking a cold plunge, or can a Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) treatment be more beneficial?
The answer is YES to both, but which is better???
WBC and ice baths are both forms of cold therapy where extremely cold temperatures are used. These two techniques may appear similar, though in a real sense, they are vastly different.
WBC entails the use of extremely cold dry air (nitrogen) safely flowing around part or the whole at -110 to -120°C.
On the other hand, ice baths also referred to as cold water immersions involves immersion of the whole body or some part in a tub containing icy water, usually around 5-10°c.
WHOLE BODY CRYOTHERAPY VS ICE BATH
WBC as the name suggests is designed to benefit the whole body. Your body is placed in a controlled WBC chamber with extremely cooled dry air ranging from -110 to -120°C for 2–3 minutes.
WBC for athletes specifically, has been termed as the best form of cold therapy for muscle recovery, and reduction of soreness and muscle pain by increasing the rate at which the muscles are repaired. Thus, promoting naturally healing body mechanisms and most of all WBC is more hygienic with less touch points and no sharing of contaminated water.
In an ice bath, icy water is used with temperatures ranging from 5-10°C for about 15–20 minutes. Ice baths are cheap and readily available as the only requirement needed is a bathtub and some bags of ice. However, you cannot control the temperature of an ice bath like you can WBC. Ice baths have been known to reduce soreness and inflammation but not enhance body’s natural healing mechanisms that research has found using WBC.
Whole body cryotherapy vs ice bath: which one portrays more benefits than the other?
Well, let’s find out.
In WBC one is required to take 2–3 minutes in the cold chambers, thus saving time. In an ice bath the time taken in the icy water ranges between 15–20 minutes, this approach is time-consuming and can often result in athletes feeling short of breath and feeling very rigid on exit for several minutes to hours. Furthermore, recent research has found cold-water immersion is not effective in promoting muscle protein synthesis as it hinders skeletal muscle fiber hypertrophy, as well as muscle mass and strength gains.
Treatment temperatures applied
In WBC the chambers are filled with dry mist of air obtained from liquid nitrogen with temperatures ranging from -110 to -120 °C degrees. The dry cold air does not affect the body muscles since the cold only penetrates ½ mm into the skin.
In an ice bath icy water is cold & wet, this normally results in muscle congealment. The muscles then lose elasticity becoming immobile. The wetness from the icy water waterlogs the skin leading to skin irritation, redness, and damage to the skin's sensory structures.
Resumption of work-out activities
In WBC work-out activities can be resumed immediately after exiting the cryotherapy chambers as the body usually detects a back-to-normal temperatures and blood is circulated back to the peripheral muscles and organs.
In ice bath resuming work-out activities immediately is very impossible due to the congealment of the muscles. One is therefore required to rest for a period of 24 hours to allow the muscles to regain back their normal functionality.
Pre or post-workout exercise?
WBC is used for both pre and post-work-out activities. Prior, the amount of energy needed for the activities increases rapidly while after cryotherapy hastens the recovery or reduces muscle pain and soreness.
Ice bath is only recommended as an after work-out strategy to reduce soreness, inflammation, and muscle pain.
WBC does not pose any risks associated with hypothermia as the body’s temperatures remain warm despite extremely cold temperatures in the chambers. An illusion is created where the body believes hypothermia is inevitable resulting in vaso-constriction which is a drastic survival mechanism. The blood is therefore directed to the core, a move to ensure the organs remain functional. In addition, the blood flow to the targeted areas is reduced which ensures metabolic processes are halted reducing soreness and inflammation.
In an ice bath, the wet cold penetrates deep into the skin causing the body tissues to freeze while the muscles congeal which can easily result in death. Once immersed in the icy waters the body detects the risk of hypothermia causing vaso-constriction body’s mechanism to pump warm blood to the peripheral tissues and muscles to prevent it from freezing.
Benefits associated with each approach: Cryotherapy and Ice Bath
Let’s talk about the benefits associated with WBC first.
In WBC other benefits are incurred in the process which is an added advantage. During the exercise, the brain triggers various organ regulatory functions resulting in the rejuvenation of cells, a boost of the body's immunity system, and an increased amount of energy, adrenaline, and endorphins that in turn improve the self-healing mechanisms of the whole system. Skin, nails, and hair health is improved due to increased amount of collagen production, and studies have found that whole-body cryotherapy can help treat conditions such as arthritis, eczema, numb nerve pain, limit migraines, and more. Ice baths have only been found to reduce soreness, muscle pain, and inflammation.
Looking at all the information we can conclude that ice baths are easier to access and maybe initially cheaper, but when it comes to hygiene and holistic benefits, WBC is the clear winner for those who want to take their recovery and overall physical and mental health to the next level.
Roberts, L. A., Raastad, T., Markworth, J. F., Figueiredo, V. C., Egner, I. M., Shield, A., … Peake, J. M. (2015). Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training. The Journal of Physiology, 593 (18), 4285–4301. doi:10.1113/JP270570
Wilson LJ, Cockburn E, Paice K, Sinclair S, Faki T, Hills FA, Gondek MB, Wood A, Dimitriou L. Recovery following a marathon: a comparison of cold water immersion, whole body cryotherapy and a placebo control. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2018 Jan;118(1):153-163. doi: 10.1007/s00421-017-3757-z. Epub 2017 Nov 10. PMID: 29127510.
Figueiredo, V. C., Roberts, L. A., Markworth, J. F., Barnett, M. P. G., Coombes, J. S., Raastad, T., … Cameron-Smith, D. (2016). Impact of resistance exercise on ribosome biogenesis is acutely regulated by post-exercise recovery strategies. Physiological Reports, 4 (2), e12670. doi:10.14814/phy2.12670
Fuchs, C. J., Kouw, I. W. K., Churchward-Venne, T. A., Smeets, J. S. J., Senden, J. M., Lichtenbelt, W. D. van M., … van Loon, L. J. C. (2020). Postexercise cooling impairs muscle protein synthesis rates in recreational athletes. The Journal of Physiology, 598 (4), 755–772. doi:10.1113/JP278996
Fyfe, J. J., Broatch, J. R., Trewin, A. J., Hanson, E. D., Argus, C. K., Garnham, A. P., … Petersen, A. C. (2019). Cold water immersion attenuates anabolic signaling and skeletal muscle fiber hypertrophy, but not strength gain, following whole-body resistance training. Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md.: 1985), 127 (5), 1403–1418. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00127.2019