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Pain Management: What Is Cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy is the application of cold to treat pain, swelling or other conditions. People commonly use ice at home for sprains or other minor injuries. Cold therapy is also employed in healthcare settings to reduce fever in a hospital or to treat musculoskeletal conditions in physical therapy. Cold can be used to treat both acute and chronic pain. Sometimes, cryotherapy is incorporated into other treatments, such as hydrotherapy.

The term cryotherapy may also refer to the use of extreme cold, mostly by means of liquid nitrogen, to destroy tissue. This type of cryotherapy is also known as cryoablation, targeted cryoablation or cryosurgery. It is sometimes used to treat and destroy skin lesions, such as warts or certain types of precancerous skin conditions.

Cold may be applied in a variety of ways, such as ice, ice packs, chemical cold packs, vapocoolant spray, cold baths or ice massage. It should be applied for 10 to 20 minutes and then removed. When treating acute pain due to injuries, cold can be applied numerous times. It may be used for up to two days after the injury or until the swelling has subsided. Cold restricts blood vessels in the treated area and thus prevents leaking of fluids into the surrounding area which helps reduce swelling and pain. By reducing the swelling ice therapy also decreases potential tissue damage.

Heat is also sometimes used to treat pain, especially chronic pain, but opinions differ as to which method (heat or cold) works best. Heat promotes increased blood flow to the muscles and makes connective tissue more elastic, thus relieving joint stiffness. Sometimes both cold and heat are used to relieve pain. Initially, cold is applied for 24 to 48 hours during first aid for acute injuries to reduce swelling from inflammation and resulting pain. Heat is then used (see thermotherapy) during the rehabilitative phase of injury. However, using heat and cold alternately sometimes work best for some patients.

Conditions Treated by Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy is used to treat a number of different injuries and other conditions, including:

  • Injuries and trauma pain. Sprains and strains are the most common type of condition treated with cold therapy. Cold should be applied immediately after an injury to decrease pain and swelling. Cryotherapy may also help treat mild stress fractures.
  • Headaches. Cryotherapy is sometimes used for headaches, including migraines. Cold can numb nerves thereby increasing the patient’s pain threshold.
  • Arthritis (joint inflammation). Arthritic conditions, particularly rheumatoid arthritis, sometimes respond to cold therapy but are also sometimes treated with heat.
  • Testicular and scrotal pain. Cold therapy is a common home treatment for many types of this pain, but certain forms require immediate medical attention.
  • Certain types of abdominal pain. Sucking on ice chips may sometimes relieve mild pain in the abdomen.
  • Postsurgical pain
  • Orofacial pain and dental pain
  • Back and neck pain
  • Eye pain and ear pain
  • TMJ disorder
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Shoulder pain and elbow and arm pain
  • Knee pain and other types of joint pain

Benefits and Potential Risks of Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy is fast, easy to use, effective and inexpensive. But there are certain medical conditions that should not be treated with cold therapy such as poor blood circulation, vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels), Raynaud syndrome (constriction of the smallest arteries that deliver blood to the fingers and toes when exposed to cold or due to emotional upheaval), cryoglobulinemia (thickening of abnormal proteins in the bloodstream when exposed to cold), impaired sensation, anxiety about cold as well as rare blood disorder called paroxysmal cold hemoglobinuria. Another potential risk of cold therapy is causing frostbite when skin and other tissues are damaged by extreme cold. Rarely, cryotherapy may temporarily increase pain. If you are not certain as to whether cryotherapy is suitable for you, ask your doctor first.