There’s limited evidence regarding cryotherapy’s effectiveness for rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but some people report temporary pain relief and reduced joint swelling after cryotherapy sessions.

Cryotherapy is a medical treatment that exposes the body to freezing temperatures for a few minutes. You either step into a cryo-chamber or have a healthcare professional apply a specialized device to your skin.

This treatment has various uses, including:

  • treating skin conditions
  • managing pain
  • reducing inflammation
  • improving blood circulation
  • stimulating the body’s natural healing processes

Let’s explore the research behind cryotherapy for RA and discuss the benefits it may offer.

Cryotherapy for RA involves exposing the affected joints to extreme cold for a brief period, typically 3–5 minutes.

This is done by either sitting in a cryotherapy booth or having a qualified healthcare professional apply a cryotherapy wand to target specific areas of your body.

More studies are needed to explore cryotherapy as a potential treatment for RA. However, some preliminary findings suggest potential benefits, including:

Pain relief

Cryotherapy may temporarily relieve pain associated with RA by numbing the affected joints and reducing pain.

A 2021 study found that cold air therapy and ice massage, which are forms of cryotherapy, resulted in immediate pain relief that lasted for at least 60 minutes.

Additionally, according to a 2022 study involving 56 people, whole-body cryotherapy significantly reduced pain compared with the control group. The whole-body cryotherapy group also had lower pain levels at the 12-week follow-up.

However, more research is necessary to fully understand the extent of the pain-relieving benefits of cryotherapy for RA.

Reduced inflammation

Cryotherapy involves exposing the body to temperatures as low as -166°F (-110°C) for a short duration. It can temporarily suppress the inflammatory response by cooling the affected areas.

According to a 2019 study, cryotherapy may have anti-inflammatory effects by targeting proinflammatory cytokines that can lead to the development and severity of RA. These cytokines include:

  • tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha)
  • interleukin-6 (IL-6)
  • macrophage migration inhibitory factor

Improved joint function

A 2020 review of 25 studies discusses the use of cryotherapy for managing chronic pain in conditions like RA.

Researchers found that both local and non-local cryotherapy methods, such as ice packs, ice baths, and whole-body cryotherapy, may help reduce chronic pain.

Researchers believe cryotherapy may help reduce inflammation, edema, and pain as well as improve joint function in people with RA.

However, more research is needed to establish its effectiveness and long-term effects, as researchers highlight limitations in the existing studies.

Cryotherapy is generally considered safe. However, there are some potential risks associated with this treatment, as with any medical procedure.

Some possible risks of cryotherapy for RA may include:

  • skin damage
  • frostbite
  • nerve damage

Whole-body cryotherapy may also increase the risk of fainting and high blood pressure.

If you’re considering cryotherapy for RA, consider speaking with a qualified healthcare professional to discuss potential risks and determine whether this treatment is safe and appropriate.

Cryotherapy may benefit various people with RA, particularly those who:

  • Experience persistent inflammation: People with RA and chronic joint inflammation may benefit from cryotherapy’s potential to reduce inflammation markers like C-reactive protein and alleviate swelling.
  • Have severe joint pain: People with RA who have significant joint pain may find relief through cryotherapy, as it can temporarily numb nerve endings and release endorphins to ease pain.
  • Have reduced joint mobility: Cryotherapy may help improve joint function and mobility, making it a suitable option for people with RA who have stiffness and reduced flexibility.
  • Seek adjunctive therapy: Cryotherapy can complement other RA treatments, such as medications, physical therapy, and lifestyle strategies, to enhance overall symptom management.

When should you not use cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy may not be suitable for everyone. There are specific situations when it should be avoided, including:

  • Raynaud disease: People with Raynaud disease should avoid cryotherapy because it may exacerbate symptoms, such as episodes of finger and toe discoloration triggered by cold.
  • High blood pressure: People with unmanaged high blood pressure should avoid whole-body cryotherapy since it can increase blood pressure.
  • Allergy to cold: If you have a cold allergy or sensitivity, cryotherapy may not suit you because it can cause skin irritation or frostbite.
  • Pregnancy: Avoid cryotherapy if you’re pregnant. There are potential risks associated with extreme cold exposure during pregnancy.
  • Open wounds or skin infections: Cryotherapy should not be used directly on open wounds or skin infections, as it may cause further complications.

Cryotherapy has emerged as a promising treatment option for people with RA. It offers anti-inflammatory benefits, improved joint function, and pain management, potentially enhancing quality of life.

However, talk with a healthcare professional before trying cryotherapy. It may not be suitable for everyone, such as pregnant people or those with certain medical conditions, like Raynaud disease.