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Cryotherapy for Muscle Soreness

Cryotherapy for muscle soreness is well established. Both research literature and practical accounts are abundant. I don’t need to go over all the studies here. But I thought it might be a good idea to discuss the myth that soreness is something you should avoid.

There’s a television commercial for Advil that shows people doing extreme physical exercise. A guy does a full split on the floor in a subway. A man juggles bowling balls. During all this, the voiceover asks, “What muscle pain?” Then the voice explains that Advil relieves muscle pain.

NSAIDs Can Be Worse than Nothing

I can recognize why this commercial is amusing, especially the guy juggling the bowling balls. But it’s terribly misleading. Advil is ibuprofen, a Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug (NSAID). NSAIDs can indeed relieve pain, but a mouse study published in 2017 showed that they also hinder the healing process and prevent the strength and endurance gains that are supposed to come from exercise. Previous studies of human subjects had already showed that NSAIDs can reduce aerobic benefits by limiting the ratio of blood capillaries to muscle fibers.

So if you’re going to juggle bowling balls, and you want to get better at it, don’t try to recover from your training sessions with NSAIDs. They will slow your progress, and some studies have shown they won’t even supply the pain relief you want.

Recovery Without Drugs

Here’s my advice. Rather than popping pills, undertake your recovery systematically and with proven techniques. Last year, I wrote here about the things you should be doing to maximize recovery. Briefly, they are

    • Sleep
    • Protein
    • Hydration
    • Light Exercise
    • Massage.

These measures will help to ensure you recover well and at the same time preserve the benefits of your harder training sessions. They don’t always relieve pain, however. So what do you do about the soreness?

One thing you can do is recognize that the soreness is beneficial. It actually means that your muscles are healing and strengthening as they do so. Training is as much about the mind as it is about the body, and you may be able to reframe the soreness as something to enjoy. If not, you may at least be able to consider it a tolerable cost of doing business.

Cryotherapy for Muscle Soreness

On the other hand, you may find the soreness to be too uncomfortable to tolerate. That’s when it’s time to look for drug-free ways to manage it. The best drug-free way I know for managing pain is cold. But don’t just apply ice packs or stick yourself in an ice bath. Ice can be dangerous if you don’t use it properly.

Whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) is faster, more comfortable, and safer than ice. It takes three minutes, and it involves no numbness or discomfort. After three minutes, during which you never get numb, you leave the cabinet, and your nutrient rich blood floods back from your core to create a rejuvenation effect, often accompanied by a flood of endorphins.

A 2007 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found significant pain relief for 23 professional athletes who underwent cryotherapy. The physiological mechanism the researchers found to explain it was that cold reduces nerve conduction velocity. My take on this is that cold acts on the nerves rather than inhibiting the healing inflammation the way drugs do. This would mean that cold allows you to have your pain relief and training gains at the same time.

If your hard training sessions leave you with sore muscles, book a whole-body cryotherapy session to follow as soon as possible after the next one. Then maybe you’ll be the one asking, “What muscle pain?”

“Bowling party” by lisaclarke is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0