Can Cryotherapy Relieve Atopic Dermatitis?

According to the National Eczema Association, 18 million adults in the U.S. have atopic dermatitis, which is one of the eight varieties of eczema. In a society that pays so much attention to physical appearance, it should be no surprise that more than one-third of those say they “often” or “always” feel angry or embarrassed by their appearance due to the condition. But eczema means more than ugly skin. The Association also says hospitalization due to flare-ups, associated infections, and viruses link to an 8-year reduction in lifespan. Atopic dermatitis is due to an immune deficiency, and there is no cure — only treatment. And the newest treatment — whole body cryotherapy — does not require medications.

A 2008 Research Letter in JAMA Dermatology reported on a study of 18 adults in Finland suffering from atopic dermatitis. The patients were not allowed to use their usual dermatitis medications for a week before the cryotherapy treatments began, and then they received WBC three times a week for four weeks. There was then an 8-week followup period to determine if the effects of the treatment continued after the treatments ceased. Patients were assessed both before and after the treatments according to the Scoring of Atopic Dermatitis index (SCORAD). They were also evaluated in terms of transepidermal water loss, self-assessed itchiness, self-assessed sleep loss, and the Dermatology Life Quality Index. The patients who completed the study (one dropped out) achieved improvements ranging from 19.6% to 37.5% in every dimension. The researchers were impressed with the 19.6% improvement in SCORAD, particularly since the improvement continued after the treatment period into the followup period.

It was a small study and the most the researchers could claim for their work was “Whole-body cryotherapy… offers a new option in the armament of therapies for atopic dermatitis. In our patients, whole-body cryotherapy was successfully carried out as monotherapy during the treatment period, i.e., no anti-inflammatory topical preparations were used.” It seems a fairly modest conclusion, but the idea that WBC could displace topical steroids as a treatment for dermatitis should be pretty compelling to anyone concerned about side effects of medications.

If you want to try WBC for your atopic dermatitis, you will probably find that the extreme cold gives you immediate soothing of your dermatitis symptoms, the way it did for the patients in Finland. At the end of three minutes, when you step out of the booth back into room temperature, you will likely feel a mild euphoria. This is partly due to the relief of getting out of the cold, but it’s also due a release of endorphins, which is one of your body’s reactions to the extreme temperature. Certain people should avoid cryotherapy: those who are pregnant, those with high blood pressure or heart conditions, and those with venous thrombosis, to name a few (see the FAQ, “Are there any circumstances in which cryotherapy treatment should not be applied?” on this page for a more complete list). But for others, it has no bad side effects, and many people find it to be refreshing. 

WBC will not cure your dermatitis, but it just may relieve your symptoms. A WBC session at Peak Recovery & Health Center takes three minutes, which is a small investment for something that may improve your quality of life.

Photo: “Villahermosa, Parque-Museo La Venta zoo, crocodile” by Arian Zwegers. Creative Commons license. This crocodile is a visual metaphor for dermatitis rather than a sufferer. “Chronic atopic dermatitis appears as thickened, elevated plaques of scaling skin.” –