Cryotherapy vs. Heat Therapy: Which Is Better?

If you’re considering cryotherapy or heat therapy treatments, you may be wondering how these treatments differ, and which might be better. While many people are aware that heat and ice packs are used to treat athletic injuries, and chronic inflammation, the additional benefits of these treatments are not as well-known.

Cryotherapy is a non-invasive treatment that utilizes cold air or ice to chill the body. Heat therapy is similar, but it involves heat packs and/or hot baths. While these therapies differ, they each have their merits. The better option varies depending on an individual’s injuries and preferences.

In this article, we’ll explore both cryotherapy and heat therapy to discover how they work, how they might prove beneficial, and what side effects are associated with them. We’ll also discuss the merits of each therapy to determine if one is sincerely better than the other.

What Is Cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy is another term for cold therapy. Cryotherapy treatments utilize moderate to intense levels of cold, often keeping patients cool for several minutes. This type of therapy is often used to treat a variety of conditions, including arthritis and dermatitis. However, the exact application of these frigid temperatures varies.

Some patients may enter a cryotherapy chamber that encloses their feet, legs, abdomen, and torso. While standing or laying in one of these chambers, only the head and neck will be visible and relatively unaffected by the cold. 

Other treatments may involve the use of ice packs or localized cooling gels. Some types of cryotherapy will incorporate both local and whole-body cooling techniques for comprehensive results. The precise type of cryotherapy applications used tends to differ from patient to patient.

Individuals with acute, localized issues (such as an arthritic knee or wrist) may benefit from a direct, concentrated treatment method. Alternatively, those with body-wide issues might prefer to use a cryotherapy chamber. A physician or technician will be able to create an optimized treatment plan that is customized to meet your needs and preferences.

To help you understand this type of temperature therapy in greater detail, let’s explore the potential benefits of cryotherapy treatments.

How Does Cryotherapy Work?

The human body is exceptionally sensitive to temperature changes. That’s why it’s crucial to keep hydrated after spending time in a hot environment or to bundle up in the cold. As such, it may seem strange to use freezing temperatures to treat a condition or illness. After all, low body temperature or hypothermia can prove fatal.

However, cryotherapy doesn’t affect the body intensely enough to induce hypothermic conditions, especially when applied in small doses during brief sessions. Instead, cryotherapy helps muscle tissue contract more readily and intensely, and it can also minimize the dilation of blood vessels. Cryotherapy can also briefly inhibit some nerve function. 

Understanding how cold therapy does this begins with understanding how freezing temperatures can change the molecular structure of a compound. It can be helpful to use water as an example, especially when you consider that up to 60% of the human body is water. 

At room temperature, water is a liquid. However, when temperatures begin to plummet, water can quickly transform into solid ice. If you were to look at the molecular structure of water as it freezes, you would find that the rapidly moving mish-mosh of hydrogen and oxygen molecules become a rigid, stationary grid.

Benefits of Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy treatments might not be the best way to cool off during a warm day, but they could provide a different kind of relief. Cold therapy is often used to treat minor athletic injuries, especially injuries involving sore muscles or joint inflammation. However, cryotherapy is rapidly gaining popularity for its other potential uses and benefits.

Some of the most notable of these potential advantages include:

  • Numbed nerves
  • Reduced arthritic pain
  • Improved mood
  • Healthier skin
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Wart removal
  • Decreased risk of dementia
  • Fewer migraines

While some of these benefits are still undergoing research to confirm their validity, others have reams of scientific data to support them. We’ll explore these confirmed medical benefits alongside those presented via anecdotal evidence. 

After all, Western medicine is still evolving and learning. A hundred years ago, hardly anyone would have believed that a common form of bread mold would go on to become a world-changing antibiotic

The medical field is not cut and dry, and new information concerning potential treatments and medicines is published every day. As such, exploring potential treatment methods is just as crucial as reaffirming previously proven ones. 

Cryotherapy’s effectiveness at treating nerve-related pain, for instance, is still under debate. By delving into this debate, you can arrive at an educated conclusion concerning the potential benefits cryotherapy treatments might offer to those with chronic nerve pain.

Numbed Nerves

Consistent exposure to near-freezing conditions can contribute to nerve damage, which is why many medical professionals are hesitant about using cold therapy to treat damaged or painful nerves. However, ice baths and cold packs are often used by athletes to treat mild nerve pain.

The difference lies in both the type and amount of cold exposure. Those who use ice baths typically only stay submerged for ten minutes or less. Additionally, cold packs can produce enough coolness to treat acute aches and pains within thirty minutes or less.

Similarly, modern cryotherapy treatments involving liquid nitrogen or argon gas tend to last between a few seconds and a couple of minutes. As such, professionally administered cold therapy can help numb painful nerves without causing long-lasting damage. The intensely cool temperature could also help reduce pain associated with arthritis.

Reduced Arthritic Pain

Arthritis is a common condition that affects up to 33% of American adults. It is characterized by inflammation in the joints that causes swelling, stiffness, and pained mobility. While eating a healthy diet and practicing low-impact exercises could help prevent the onset of several debilitating forms of arthritis, it’s sometimes not enough.

Many individuals with low amounts of joint fluid or cartilage experience intense bouts of pain while attempting to walk, stand, or even sit down. That’s because the nerve endings in the wrists, knees, spine, and hips rely on cushioning fluids and cartilage to keep them from rubbing against bones. When there’s no padding, the nerves end up becoming inflamed and painful.

Cryotherapy may be able to help reduce arthritic pain by numbing the nerves located near pained joints. While this relief is relatively temporary, it is a worthwhile alternative to daily painkillers, especially those with dangerous side effects or addictive qualities. 

Cold therapy may also be able to lift an individual’s mood, allowing them to experience a brief repose from feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression.

Improved Mood

This benefit can be tricky to describe or explain, as frigid temperatures alone aren’t enough to improve your mood. But if you’ve ever read the story of Androcles and the Lion, you may grasp the concept of this benefit a little more readily. Here’s a modern take to get you caught up.

Imagine that you’re walking along a road, and you soon encounter a barking dog that looks quite vicious. You’re tempted to run away, but the dog shows no interest in pursuing you. Instead, it simply sits and yowls. You soon understand that the dog is in pain, and knowing this, you immediately begin looking for an injury.

You soon spot a piece of thorn lodged into the dog’s paw. Bravely, you decide to remove it. The dog is grateful to you, and rather than attacking you; it decides to befriend you. When a person is in pain, they’re not able to think clearly. Their emotions may be heightened as they attempt to come to terms with their pain. 

In most cases, someone who is experiencing intense levels of pain is going to experience irrational feelings of hopelessness, anger, or worry. However, once the source of the pain is removed, these feelings often dissipate. An individual may suddenly feel overwhelmed with feelings of joy or thankfulness.

Chronic pain and depression are closely linked. By preventing pain signals from reaching the brain (typically by numbing nerve endings), you may be able to alter your disposition and feel happier and calmer. This effect can be bolstered by getting plenty of rest each night, eating nutritious meals, and exercising regularly.

Healthier Skin

Signs of aging often occur first in the face and hands. You may begin to notice signs of wrinkles as you enter middle age, especially if you’re prone to high-stress situations. Eating a poor diet, smoking, and drinking alcohol can also contribute to signs of premature aging. 

The beauty industry thrives on aging or unhappy individuals, often releasing expensive creams or products that promise to reduce or prevent wrinkles. However, cold therapy may be a better option. When cold packs are applied to the skin, it causes the surrounding tissue to tighten. It also decreases local circulation, resulting in reduced redness and swelling. 

Cold temperatures can also help to minimize the size and appearance of pores. As such, traditional cryotherapy options may be an excellent option for anyone hoping to achieve a brighter, clearer complexion and fewer unsightly wrinkles. 

Reduced Inflammation

Unlike heat therapy, which increases circulation, cryotherapy can significantly reduce blood flow. That’s because blood vessels constrict in cool temperatures, limiting the amount of swelling and inflammation around an injury. 

But this immediate reduction in inflammation does have a notable drawback. When circulation is reduced, healing may take longer as the body struggles to send helpful white blood cells to the affected site.

Wart Removal

In the past, troublesome warts were burned away, cut off, or filed down to barely noticeable bumps. Many of these treatment methods were somewhat painful, especially for patients with developed nerve endings near or within the blemish. The introduction of liquid nitrogen cryotherapy changed everything.

To get rid of a wart, most doctors apply a tiny amount of liquid nitrogen to the patient’s wart, ensuring that the tissue dies. This often causes the wart to slough off, leaving a raw patch of skin or blister beneath. With careful handwashing and bandaging, this blister may break, drain, and heal within a matter of a few days.

Decreased Dementia Risk

The risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia seems to be increasing. This may reflect the massive proportion of the US population that is currently reaching retirement age, or it may be a worrying cause for concern. Either way, it’s crucial to do everything you can to prevent or reduce the risk of developing one of these conditions.

Cryotherapy may help decrease dementia risk, particularly whole-body treatment options. The exact cause behind this positive effect is unknown, though researchers do have a few interesting ideas and theories. 

For example, cryotherapy’s ability to reduce inflammation is particularly notable. This is especially true when you consider that chronic inflammation can increase the chance of developing dementia. Because cold therapy is anti-inflammatory, it’s also anti-dementia.

Fewer Migraines

If you’ve ever had a migraine, then you know just how debilitating it can be. Equally, many people who suffer from migraines have few options in terms of treatment methods. Pain relievers and caffeine can help reduce the severity of symptoms, but they cannot cure a migraine.

Because cryotherapy can numb nerve endings, it is sometimes used to help treat and prevent painful chronic migraines. This is achieved by applying chilling temperatures to the base of the neck. This targeted approach ensures that only the nerves most responsible for migraines are numbed. 

Naturally, extra caution is necessary when attempting this type of therapy. Not only are cold packs applied on one of the most sensitive parts of the body, the neck, but they’re also being positioned in a way that could harm nerve endings. Short, infrequent cryotherapy treatments are best for migraines.

Local Treatments

Cryotherapy can alter the cellular structure of living tissue similarly. When used to treat warts, cryotherapy destroys the affected cells, allowing them to slough off naturally. New, healthy skin is then able to grow over the deadened area. This method is generally painless and fantastically quick.

Whole-Body Treatments

However, whole-body cryotherapy and gentle cryotherapy treatment options don’t immediately kill skin or muscle tissue. Instead, it forces the structure of those tissues to become more taught and inflexible. This change occurs very quickly as patients are exposed to increasing levels of cooled air or liquid nitrogen.

In this way, whole-body cryotherapy treatments could provide potent relief from inflammation and chronic joint pain. Ice packs also serve this function. However, instead of having to wait half an hour or longer to experience the full effects of cold therapy, you could experience almost instantaneous results with modern cryotherapy treatments, which is part of their appeal.

Still, some whole-body cryotherapy treatments will incorporate both novel liquid nitrogen techniques and traditional ice packs. Some individuals may prefer to be treated with ice packs instead of using a cryotherapy chamber or liquid nitrogen treatments. That’s because liquid nitrogen can be dangerous when used incorrectly.

Potential Side Effects

Cryotherapy should only be administered by licensed professionals to reduce potential risks associated with such treatments. While contemporary cryotherapy treatments are far safer than those of the past, cold therapy still poses a few risks.

The most commonly reported side effects of cryotherapy include:

  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Skin Irritation

There is also some recent evidence that supports the idea that cold therapy may prolong muscle repair and healing. This can be troublesome for athletes hoping to ice sore muscles for pain relief.

Treatments that utilize liquid nitrogen carry their own set of risks. When used incorrectly, liquid nitrogen can become fatal. You should never inhale or come into direct contact with liquid nitrogen, as it could cause irreparable damage to your lungs, brain, or skin tissue. 

Those with diabetes should avoid cryotherapy treatments. Pre-existing nerve damage could make it challenging for diabetes individuals to notice feeling painfully cold, which could result in severe nerve damage or tissue injury. 

For these reasons, it’s crucial to only receive treatments from reputable physicians and health care providers. Physical therapists are also likely to have the skills and knowledge required to administer cryotherapy treatments appropriately.

What Is Heat Therapy?

Heat therapy is a type of treatment involving the use of warm water, hot packs, or heating pads. In this way, it is both similar and opposite to cryotherapy’s use of ice, cold packs, and liquid nitrogen. Still, the way that heat therapy interacts with the body could not be more different than cold therapy’s effects.

This type of therapy is often used by athletes. Individuals who consistently find themselves on their feet or performing physical labor may also benefit from heat therapy. Treatment options are varied and accessible. 

Most people will be able to find heat-inducing creams, hot packs, and electronic blankets at their local department store. Of course, you could also choose to order a heat therapy device or product online. 

Heat therapy doesn’t require a medical prescription or an advanced understanding of complex chemicals. For these reasons (and more), it remains one of the most popular therapy options for those looking to reduce muscle pain via relaxation.

How Does Heat Therapy Work?

Heat therapy primarily helps improve circulation. However, heat can also help tight, stiff muscles relax and become more flexible. Cool temperatures may cause molecules to form rigid, grid-like bonds, but warm temperatures do the opposite. 

The higher the temperature, the faster and more erratic molecules will become. Sore muscles or overworked joints benefit from this footloose structure and become more malleable. Also, the boost in blood flow could help white blood cells and lymphocytes reach an area more quickly. This might result in faster and more effective healing.

Though the benefits and uses associated with heat therapy are similar to those applied to cold therapy, they essentially work in opposite ways. Cryotherapy makes things taut, tight, and rigid. Heat therapy helps muscles and minds relax, reducing pressure on sensitive joints and helping individuals let go of anxiety and stress.

Benefits of Heat Therapy

The benefits of heat therapy can be more pronounced than those belonging to cold therapy. Cryotherapy effectiveness tends to differ depending on the cooling method, treatment area, and diagnosed condition of the patient. Heat therapy, on the other hand, is far more straightforward. 

The vast majority of individuals who try heat therapy experience report: 

  • Improved circulation
  • Decreased muscle pain
  • Lower stress levels
  • Skin-based detox
  • Improved immunity

These benefits often have deep roots in both the scientific and medical communities, as heat therapy has been used in Western cultures for far longer than cryotherapy. A hundred years ago, it was a lot harder to come by ice, and the air conditioning system was still in its early stages. 

Boiling-hot water, however, was readily available all across the globe. Consequently, there’s far more known about how heat can benefit the body. But perhaps the most crucial thing to remember about heat therapy is that it’s great for your circulation.

Improved Circulation

Remember how cool temperatures cause blood vessels to constrict and become thin? Heat does the opposite. In warm weather, or during heat therapy treatment, your blood vessels dilate. This allows blood to move more freely and quickly. 

While this might not seem particularly significant, poor cardiovascular health is one of the leading causes of death in the US. While heat therapy is no replacement for exercise, adequate rest, proper hydration, or optimal nutrition, it is still a non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical treatment option for those hoping to improve their circulation and overall health.

It’s worthwhile to note that increased circulation often means increased inflammation, at least initially. Still, inflammation is often a necessary part of the healing process, so preventing it could prove disastrous. 

Decreased Muscle Pain

Tense and rigid muscles can put unwanted pressure on nerve endings, resulting in intense bouts of pain. Sometimes, the best way to relieve this type of pain is to relax your muscles. Prescription muscle relaxants can help with whole-body muscle relaxation, but these drugs can be dangerous.

Heat therapy treatments are far less expensive, inconvenient, and potentially harmful. When you apply heat to muscle tissue, it begins to expand and loosen. This occurs within the visible muscle fibers and on a microscopic level. 

When this tissue is relaxed and flexible, there’s less pressure on surrounding skeletal tissue or nerve endings. Overall, this type of treatment could decrease chronic muscle pains. 

Young attractive woman getting hot stone massage at spa salon, lying on massage table

Lower Stress Levels

When your muscles aren’t tense, there’s a good chance that you aren’t either. Tight, taut muscles are often a sign of prolonged anxiety, so relaxing them with heat could have an equally relaxing effect on your mind. 

Those using heat therapy to help lessen chronic pain or inflammation may experience a greater reduction in stress levels. This is partially due to the remnants of pain-reducing endorphins your body deploys.

Skin-Based Detox

When we feel hot, we tend to sweat. This moisture then evaporates from the surface of our skin, allowing us to enjoy a feeling of slight coolness. But sweat isn’t purely salt and water. It also contains toxins that are normally found in urine or feces, including urea and ammonia. 

As such, heat-based therapies are often a popular detoxification option. Scandinavian cultures have been utilizing the healing and calming effects of hot steam for centuries. The earliest heat therapies likely came in the form of naturally heated springs or pools, often called saunas.

By increasing your body’s temperature to the point of sweating, you may be helping to reduce strain on your liver and kidneys. When these vital organs are working at full capacity, they’re no longer struggling to separate necessary nutrients from dangerous toxins. This could help you improve your immune system functioning.

Improved Immunity

Improved circulation has a long list of associated benefits, including improved immunity. When you add this to the fact that heat therapy can cause you sweat, helping your body rid itself of toxins, you’ve got a potent treatment that may help support immune system health. 

To put it simply, heat therapy may help you get rid of harmful substances more quickly while also allowing nutrient-rich blood to heal and strengthen every inch of your body.

Potential Side Effects

The potential side effects associated with heat therapy tend to be far less injurious than those associated with cold therapy. However, working with extreme temperatures can end in disaster, even if you’re not working with temperamental liquid nitrogen.

Some of the most commonly reported side effects of heat therapy include:

  • Burns
  • Reddened skin
  • Dry skin
  • Swelling

Chemical heat packs may also burst during use, causing unpleasant reactions associated with the above symptoms. Electric heating pads or blankets can also contribute to dry, irritated skin. If used improperly, these devices can also result in electrocution.

However, in general, heat therapy is a safer choice. You could experience affordable at-home heat therapy by cranking up the heat while taking a shower. Hot showers can worsen dry skin, especially if they become a daily habit. 

But taking a steamy shower now and again could help you enjoy the positive benefits of heat therapy without having to deal with the potential drawbacks.

Cryotherapy vs. Heat Therapy: Which Is Better?

Each of these types of therapies offers unique and worthwhile benefits. Deciding which one is better is an arbitrary task. That’s because some individuals and injuries may be better suited to cryotherapy, while others tend to respond to heat therapy better. 

The best way to decide between them is to consult with a physician or physical therapist. Some individuals may also want to try both types of therapy in tandem with one another. Cryotherapy causes muscle tissue to contract while heat therapy helps to relax and expand these tissues.

When used in conjunction with one another, these therapies may offer the most effective solution to muscle strains, sprains, and light contusions. Naturally, a professional opinion is necessary to help you determine the optimal treatment plan for your body and preferences.

With all of that said, there are a few notable differences between cryotherapy and heat therapy. These differences may help you decide between them. In general, cold therapy may be best when used to treat dermatological problems. Cryotherapy’s pain-relieving effects are relatively short-lived, and the muscle contractions caused by such treatments could prove painful.

Heat therapy, on the other hand, helps muscles expand and relax. As such, heat therapy may be better for those with simple muscle aches and pains or stiff joints. Heat therapy also tends to be slightly safer than cold therapy, though both can be dangerous when employed incorrectly.

Conclusion

Both cryotherapy and heat therapy treatments offer individuals a wide range of potential benefits. Conversely, they also pose some unique drawbacks and side effects. Choosing between them requires you to understand how each affects the body. 

Still, cold therapies are typically better suited to dermatological conditions, while heat therapies tend to be optimal for muscle injuries and arthritic joints. In some cases, a physician may recommend that their patient alternate between these two types of therapies. 

Consequently, neither can be said to be better than the other. They are simply designed to treat different kinds of illnesses and injuries. 

Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS

Compliment Your Body, LLC
1441 Broadway #6087
New York, NY. 10018
(646) 868-8956

Compliment Your Body has been providing corporate chair massage and in-home massage therapy to New York City and the surrounding boroughs since 2004. We are local to New York City and pride ourselves on our team of local therapists. All of our therapists are hand-picked and thoroughly vetted. We don’t hire over the phone, we meet our team on the field.

Compliment Your Body believes that care is a circle. We care for our team, our team cares for the participants, and we all care for the community!

For every single in-home or chair massage, Compliment donates three meals to a New Yorker in need through our relationship with Food Bank For New York City.

Commitment – Compassion – Connection – Charity

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Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS, owner and CEO of Compliment Your Body, LLC has over fifteen years of experience in the health and wellness field. During his career he has worked in a multitude of settings, including spas, chiropractic offices, and on the field at IronMan competitions. Richard was hired in 2005 with the United States Tennis Association as a Massage Therapist and provided therapy to the professional athletes at the US Open Tennis Championships from 2005 - 2010. Richard graduated in 2004 from The Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences. He is a National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He also completed the Plant Based Nutrition course at the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a Level 2 Nutrition Coach with Precision Nutrition. Compliment Your Body has been providing corporate / event massage therapy, and in-home massage therapy to New York City and the surrounding boroughs for over fifteen years, and has been the corporate massage provider to the New York Times throughout this time. Commitment, compassion, connection and charity are the pillars of our business. Experience the CYBNYC difference!

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