Cryotherapy vs Photobiomodulation Therapy: Purpose, Differences, and Efficacy
You may have seen some interesting new devices popping up in your local gym or wellness centers like cryotherapy chambers and photobiomodulation therapy systems. If you’re curious what these devices are for, you’ve come to the right place! We’ll cover the purpose of photobiomodulation therapy and cryotherapy, how they work, and the differences between them.
Photobiomodulation is a combination of words meaning “light,” “life,” and “change,” so in its essence, photobiomodulation is a change in life through the use of light. The term refers to a wide range of light therapy devices that use red and near-infrared (NIR) light to produce a photochemical effect in the body. Devices include targeted laser therapy systems like our Aspen Laser products, LED red and NIR light beds, light panels, and at-home LED devices.
How Photobiomodulation Therapy Works
Photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT) uses specific wavelengths of light to target certain cellular structures to promote cellular health and healing. Generally, these wavelengths target the cytochrome complex (cytochrome c) in the cells’ mitochondria. Cytochrome c is responsible for electron transport, part of the synthesis of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which transports energy for cellular functions. Because PBMT targets cytochrome c, it increases ATP synthesis, leading to increased cellular health and energy.
PBMT is often used to resolve pain and inflammation from both acute injury and chronic conditions. PBMT is also used by athletes before or after physical activity to prevent tissue damage and reduce muscle soreness and muscle fatigue. Vasodilation, a widening of the blood vessels, combined with increased cellular energy from PBMT increases the ability for inflammatory mediators to get to the injured area, allowing for quicker resolution of inflammation and reduced pain.
PBMT has minimal risks. With the right safety measures in place, PBMT is a quick, painless treatment that’ll have an individual in and out of the office in a half an hour. There are only a few potential side effects to PBMT and, with proper use and dosage, most experience no side effects at all. The most common side effect of PBMT is momentary lightheadedness from vasodilation.
Learn more about photobiomodulation on our website, Aspen Laser University.
Like photobiomodulation, cryotherapy is a broad term that describes a variety of therapies and treatments, and anything one could call cryotherapy includes using freezing or near-freezing temperatures on the body. This ranges from using an ice pack on a sore joint at home to in-office techniques for freezing off warts to full-body cryotherapy chambers that can reach down to –300°F. Most often, when people use the term, “cryotherapy,” they are referring to therapies similar to the latter rather than the former, which is generally called “cold therapy.”
Futuristic cryotherapy chambers and home remedies alike are after the same goals: reduce pain and inflammation, prevent tissue damage, and resolve skin afflictions.
How Cold Therapy Works
You’ve probably used an ice pack after an injury or surgery to help with pain and swelling, but how does applying cold achieve this temporary relief? When you place an ice pack on your body, there is an immediate vasoconstriction, or narrowing of the blood vessels, resulting in decreased blood flow to the area that is most prominent during the beginning of the application. There is also a decrease in metabolic and enzymatic activity and decreased oxygen demand to the afflicted area. The result is overall slowed activity to the area from a drop in temperature which causes the alleviation of pain and reduction of swelling.
Consensus is that ice pack therapy does alleviate symptoms and is, therefore, often recommended by practitioners, but its true efficacy (whether or not it actually works) has yet to be proven in clinical studies. When used after physical activity as rehabilitation and with a barrier (a cloth or towel) to avoid direct contact with the skin, ice packs do provide immediate pain relief, but the effect is temporary. Ice pack therapy often requires multiple applications for 10 to 20 minutes throughout the day to achieve any lasting relief, which is downtime not everyone can accommodate.
Cryotherapy is also used to treat skin afflictions in a process called cryosurgery that uses ultra-cooled liquid to freeze abnormal or diseased tissue in order to remove it. This process is effective for removing non-cancerous skin concerns like warts, moles, and skin tags, but it is not currently recommended for skin lesions suspected of being cancerous.
Whole Body Cryotherapy
When it comes to cryotherapy chambers you may have seen popping up in health spas and training centers, this is called whole-body cryotherapy (WBC)—and temperatures get extremely frosty, usually somewhere between –200°F and –300°F (–129°C to –184°C). The idea is that exposing the body to these frigid temps for a few minutes at a time can help with a variety of health concerns, from muscle soreness and injury to arthritic pain, and even some highly skeptical claims of promoting weight loss.
WBC is most commonly used by athletes for muscle soreness in place of an immersion ice bath—but much, much colder. WBC can be administered in two ways: in a single-person cryotherapy chamber that protects the head and neck from exposure or a WBC room for multiple people that doesn’t protect the head and neck.
Cryotherapy chambers require the user to stand inside a vertical pod-like chamber, wearing minimal protective clothing to expose the skin to these low temperatures, usually achieved through the use of liquid nitrogen. The head remains outside the pod, but the shoulders, arms, torso, and legs are all enclosed in the pod for two to four minutes.
WBC rooms can seat a few individuals, much like a sauna or steam room. In these rooms, the head and neck is fully exposed to the ultra cold temperatures, and users must wear protective gear around their ears and eyes.
Minimal clinical evidence supporting claims made by WBC manufacturers has been produced, and several hazards are associated with extreme temperatures. Hazards of WBC include:
- Frostbite, burns, and eye injury from exposure
- Risk of inert gas asphyxiation, where liquid nitrogen is used for cooling
- Risk of hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, in WBC rooms where liquid nitrogen is used
Those with conditions that affect nerve sensitivity, such as diabetic nerve pain, are not recommended to use WBC as risk of frostbite and burns are higher. Those with heart conditions are also at a higher risk for shock from exposure.
When you’re considering trying a new treatment, including cryotherapy and photobiomodulation therapy, talking with your doctor first is always good practice. Research facilities in your area that offer the treatment you’re looking for and find a reputable provider that has your health and safety as their top priority. At Aspen Laser, we train technicians at all clinics who have our devices to ensure all the right safety and treatment protocols are in place for every treatment.
Looking to try PMBT? Find an Aspen Laser provider near you.