Red Light Therapy and Cryotherapy: The Benefits and Risks
There are lots of therapy options out there for people looking to reduce pain and inflammation and generally improve their wellness. Two options that might seem intimidating from their futuristic appearance are red light therapy and whole body cryotherapy. While the devices might look like they belong on an intergalactic spaceship, these therapies are vastly different experiences from each other.
What is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy targets the mitochondria of our bodies’ cells through the use of red and near-infrared wavelengths of light. When exposed to these wavelengths of light in a concentrated form from a red light therapy device, our bodies increase production of ATP, which is responsible for energy transport at the cellular level. In short, red light therapy activates the body’s natural processes to speed healing and resolve inflammation through a temporary increase in circulation of blood and lymphatic fluid.
Red light therapy can be administered in a variety of ways, using panels, light bed, and laser therapy systems, depending on how targeted or concentrated you want the therapy to be. Laser therapy devices can pinpoint specific areas of the body while light beds offer a whole body experience. These devices are used to treat pain and reduce inflammation from arthritis, tendonitis, and soft tissue injuries, as well as boost collagen production which can help speed wound healing and improve the texture of the skin.
Risks of Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy poses very little risk. The biggest risk of red light therapy is damage to the eyes, especially when using a laser device. Always wear the provided protective eyewear during a red light therapy treatment to drastically reduce the chances of injury from exposure.
Right light therapy does have the potential to cause burns if used incorrectly. Sessions with a light bed shouldn’t last more than 20 minutes to reduce this risk, and sessions average 5-12 minutes. Devices like TheraLight Light Pods are designed with a cooling system to prevent individuals from feeling uncomfortable hot inside the beds. Individuals who are sensitive to light or take photosensitizing medications may be at higher risk of burns and should consult a wellness professional before starting red light therapy.
Red light therapy causes vasodilation, which is a temporary widening of the blood vessels, and this can cause some individuals to feel momentarily lightheaded after a treatment session. We recommend getting up slowly from a red light bed to help prevent or lessen this feeling.
What is Cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy is a broad term to describe a variety of therapies that involve using freezing or near-freezing temperatures on the body. This includes everything from setting an ice pack on a sore joint to procedures like freezing off warts to full-body cryotherapy chambers that reach temperatures below –300°F. When people use the term, “cryotherapy,” they’re most likely referring to therapies like these whole body chambers.
The goal of different cold therapies is to reduce pain and inflammation as well as prevent tissue damage. The idea is that the cold, when applied to the body, causes immediate vasoconstriction, which is a narrowing of the blood vessels. Decreased blood flow to the area, as well as decreased metabolic and enzymatic activity and decreased oxygen demand, result in overall slowed activity to the area which causes the alleviation of pain and reduction of swelling.
While there’s no denying that ice and cold packs alleviate symptoms, whether or not it actually works has yet to be proven in clinical studies. When used after physical activity as rehabilitation, ice packs do provide pain relief, but the effect is temporary. In fact, ice pack therapy requires multiple applications for 10 to 20 minutes throughout the day to achieve any lasting relief—which is downtime not everyone can accommodate.
Whole Body Cryotherapy
Cryotherapy chambers, which are the futuristic devices you may have seen in your health spa or training center, are used for whole-body cryotherapy (WBC). Temperatures in these chambers get extremely cold, between –200°F and –300°F (–129°C to –184°C). The thought is that exposing the body to these super frosty temps for just a few minutes at a time can help with a variety of concerns, like muscle soreness, soft tissue injury, and arthritic pain.
WBC is most commonly used in place of an immersion ice bath post-training session or work out—however it’s much, much colder. There are two types of WBC: single person chambers that protect the head and neck from exposure or a WBC room for multiple people that doesn’t protect the head or neck.
In a cryotherapy chamber, the user stands inside a vertical pod, wearing minimal protective clothing in order to expose the skin to low temperatures. The head stays outside of the pod, but from the shoulders down, the user is enclosed for two to four minutes. The cooling mechanism in these devices is often liquid nitrogen, which produces soft white clouds that add to the futuristic flare.
In WBC rooms, a few individuals sit or stand while their whole body is exposed to frigid temps. Users must wear protective gear around their ears and eyes in a WBC room.
Risks of Cryotherapy
There’s minimal clinical evidence to support claims by WBC manufacturers. There are several hazards associated with extreme temperatures, as well. Hazards of WBC include:
- Frostbite, burns, and eye injury from exposure
- Risk of inert gas asphyxiation in devices were liquid nitrogen is used for cooling
- Risk of hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, where liquid nitrogen is used
WBC is not recommended for individuals with conditions that affect nerve sensitivity, such as diabetic nerve pain, and individuals with heart conditions, who are at a higher risk for shock from exposure.
Which is Right for Me?
The most important part of starting a new therapy is knowing your own health history and how that can affect the experience and outcomes of something new. Talk with your wellness professional before starting any new treatment.