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Cold Plunge vs Cryotherapy: What's the Difference?

Imagine this: you want to work out, think of leg day, or an intense CrossFit session. Wouldn’t it be great to regularly take part in these challenging activities and not have to deal with as much soreness, or little aches and pains? That is what cold therapy does; it helps provide relief after intense exercise activities and lets you experience other unique health benefits.

And it’s not limited to fitness enthusiasts; if you want to impact your overall health positively, cold therapy can play a significant role in that. With a few cold therapy options available, you might not know which one to go for. In this article, we shall compare cryotherapy and cold plunge - both cold therapies - so you can make an informed decision about which is best for you to implement in your routine.

Cold Plunge vs Cryotherapy: Brief Overview

When you think of a cold plunge, it simply means what first crosses your mind: getting into cold water. In this case, you would need to immerse your entire body (minus the head and neck) in a tub or plunge filled with icy water which should be at a temperature of 50 degrees F – 60 degrees F (or colder temperatures) for a short period, say 3-5 minutes.

Cryotherapy, on the other hand, exposes your whole body or specific areas to extremely cold air in a cryotherapy chamber. To experience the benefits of the therapy, a person would need to get into the chamber for 2-3 minutes when the temperature range is -166 degrees F to – 265 degrees F.

The key differences between a cold plunge and cryotherapy? A cold plunge is water based cold therapy while cryotherapy is air based cold therapy.

Importance of Recovery Methods in Fitness and Wellness

Only through adequate recovery and enough rest can an athlete or fitness enthusiast perform well. The recovery process allows your body to repair and rebuild while allowing your muscles to heal and restore. To minimize the after-effects of your time at the gym, a recovery session should be scheduled immediately after a workout.

Pushing your body beyond its limits by choosing to power through exercise sessions with sore muscles that haven’t had time to heal and recover might result in injuries that affect your performance and quality of life.

Rest days to allow recovery through processes like cold therapy are equally important as the days you choose to go all in on your workouts.

Understanding the Cold Plunge

Cold plunging is already popular; social media has made sure of that.  A concept that existed for years and was used during ancient times has become more than a trend but a way to achieve overall wellness and an alternative recovery option for athletes and fitness fanatics. At this point in the article, let’s take the plunge and understand why cold water immersion is more than a hashtag on social media.

Definition and History of Cold Plunge Theory

Cold plunge is the act of immersing yourself in icy water for purposes of recovery and for the chance to experience some great benefits that significantly impact your overall wellness. The ancient Romans dipped themselves in cold water baths to rejuvenate and invigorate themselves.

How Cold Plunge Works

Research and scientific evidence suggest that when one gets into a cold plunge, the body reacts by triggering the release of certain hormones and causing constriction of blood vessels, affecting the blood flow. These hormones impact mood and alertness, while vasoconstriction helps reduce inflammation, swelling, and soreness.

When using cold plunge pools, your body’s first response is shock, which triggers a flight or fight response. In addition to an increased heart rate, the cold shock can also affect your breathing, making it rapid.

Benefits of Cold Plunge

One of the well-known benefits of cold plunging is its effect on post-workout recovery, hence the reason why it has become a go-to option for many athletes. The idea that cold water immersion helps promote faster recovery, aiding in the reduction of muscle soreness and inflammation, is backed by scientific research and evidence.

Other studies [1] and [2] provide evidence showing cold water immersion's positive effect on the immune system. They state that regular ice baths or cold exposure might strengthen the immune system, making you less susceptible to colds and other illnesses.

Practical Considerations

Safety and care should be observed when taking part in a cold plunge to avoid risks of conditions like hypothermia and other health conditions. Some of the steps you can follow to ensure you plunge safely are:

  • Talk to a medical professional to get the green light to take the plunge
  • Start slowly and gradually, allowing your body to get used to the extremely cold temperatures
  • Understand your body’s limits and know when to step out of the plunge
  • Ease into the water feet first, then slowly immerse the rest of your body
  • Hydrate properly

    To cold plunge at home, you can fill your bathtub with water then top up with ice to lower the temperature to the desired level of coolness which you can check using a thermometer. Another route would be to get one of the dedicated cold plunge tubs available for sale. They can be cheaper inflatable tubs that need your to refill with ice daily, or completely insulated and fitted with a chiller that can dial in the ideal water temperature for your routine.

    Check out something like the Ice Barrel if you want to take your home cold plunging up a notch.

    Understanding Cryotherapy

    When discussing forms of cold therapy, cryotherapy will always make the list. This form of treatment involves exposure of the body to extreme cold temperatures. Let’s learn more about this therapy below.

    Definition and Evolution of Cryotherapy

    Cryotherapy is also known as Cryosurgery and has been around since ancient times. It can be traced back to the Egyptians, who used it to treat injuries and manage inflammation.

    It appeared again during World War 11 when liquid nitrogen was used to treat injuries and skin diseases. 200 years later, cryotherapy has revolutionized from a focal and localized treatment to a more generalized treatment option focusing on the entire body.

    How Cryotherapy Works

    Unlike cold water immersion where one uses a plunge, one has to get into a cryotherapy chamber in cryotherapy. The chambers are designed to encapsulate one or more people inside them, covering their entire bodies, minus the head left out from an opening at the top.

    Once you get inside the cryotherapy chamber, you get exposed to liquid nitrogen, usually in the form of extremely cold air; your body responds by vasoconstriction. Through this process, the blood flow is affected and redirected to key organs and away from areas that require healing, providing relief from muscle soreness and inflammation and aiding in muscle tissue recovery and restoration.

    Benefits of Cryotherapy

    People, more so athletes, wouldn’t be exposing themselves to sub-zero temperatures for no good reason, considering the risks of the whole process if not done properly. And in the case of cryotherapy, professional athletes participate in it because of the benefits they experience, which are:

    • Increases and improves flexibility due to an increased blood flow
    • It helps with muscle recovery and repair of other body tissue
    • Reduces inflammation
    • Accelerates post-workout recovery

      Besides the above benefits, research [3] has shown that cryotherapy can help control pain. This comes from the concept of using ice for localized swelling management, which is connected to pain.

      Practical Considerations

      Cryotherapy has become popular, and many people are embracing it, contributing to the rise of cryotherapy centers across many large cities. If not in an establishment meant explicitly for cryotherapy, you can find the treatment in spas, beauty and medical facilities, or fitness and sports centers. The centers are almost everywhere; choosing your ideal facility depends on where you live, your budget, and other personal preferences.

      Before you start with whole body cryotherapy sessions you have to ensure your body is completely dry, any moisture on your body might cause frostbite. Don’t get into the chamber with jewelry, metallic accessories, or body piercings. Wipe off any makeup, wear light clothing like gym wear or swimsuits, and hydrate well before and after the session.

      Cold Plunge vs Cryotherapy: The Comparison

      One thing that we can all agree on is that cold plunging and cryotherapy both trigger physiological reactions in the body that contribute to overall wellness and accelerated recovery.

      Side by Side Comparison

      We shall look at and compare the potential benefits you can experience from cold water immersion and cryotherapy in the table below:

      Cold Plunge

      • Mood elevation
      • Helps with muscle pain and recovery
      • Improves sleep patterns
      • Reduce stress
      • Boosts immunity
      • Burns fat

      Cryotherapy

      • Reduces inflammation
      • Aids muscle recovery and pain management
      • Improves the health of the skin by boosting collagen production
      • Improves mental health
      • Enhances immunity
      • Boosts metabolism

      Differences in Methodology

      Cold plunging employs the use of ice and water, while cryotherapy uses air exposure in the form of liquid nitrogen. In the cryotherapy chamber, the body is exposed to air that can range from -148 degrees F to – 256 degrees F for sessions that last 2-3 minutes.

      Ideal cold plunge temperatures are 50-60 degrees F but can go lower for people who have adapted to the low temperatures. The cold immersion duration in a plunge is can be anywhere from 1 minute to up to 10 minutes or more. 

      Safety and Accessibility

      Cryotherapy and cold water immersion require caution and care; failure to do so can lead to other health issues. These health issues can be avoided by understanding the risks involved and how to avoid them. They are:

      • Cold therapy sessions should be slow and gradual, allowing your body to get used to the cold temperatures, thus reducing the risk of elevated blood pressure or hyperventilation

      • Proper hydration before and after the therapy sessions helps with recovery and core temperature regulation

      • Wearing protective gear and the right clothing during cryotherapy sessions will reduce the risk of frostbite

      Time and Cost Considerations

      Both cryotherapy and cold water immersion have a price tag attached to them. So, other than the benefits you get from both of them, you’ll have to factor in the cost and time commitment required to ensure the effectiveness and suitability of either practice.

      Initial Investment

      If you opt for a DIY cold plunge setup at home, all you would require is a bathtub filled with water and ice. Another option for a home set-up would be getting a readily made cold plunge tub that is commercially available.

      On the other hand, cryotherapy would require the purchase and intricate setup of a cryo chamber, hence the reason why many opt for cryotherapy sessions in spas, gyms, or wellness centers. Depending on the location, these sessions cost around $60 to $100.

      Recurring Costs

      If you choose a DIY cold plunge or a commercial one, you would be required to purchase several ice packs to maintain the water's cold temperatures or get additional pieces of equipment to make more ice.

      Since one must go for several sessions to ensure maximum experience of the benefits, when you add up the costs of cryotherapy sessions, it might become expensive in the long run compared to setting up a cold plunge.

      Time Investment

      Cold plunges can be done at home with as little time as 1 minute in the water depending on your set up and needs. Cryotherapy sessions are usually only 2-3 minutes long, but you generally have to go somewhere to get this done. It's not as simple as walking out to your gym! 

      Localized vs Whole-Body Therapy

      Cold plunges and ice baths can be considered whole body cold therapy since it's not so easy to target a specific part of you. While cryotherapy can be segmented into two forms: localized cryotherapy, which targets specific areas of the body, and whole-body cryotherapy, which focuses on the whole body.

      Localized Cryotherapy

      Localized cryotherapy helps with targeted treatment of areas of concern, helping to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation while limiting exposure of the rest of the body to cold temperatures. Successful treatment of the above conditions leads to improved performance, blood circulation, and accelerated muscle recovery.

      Whole Body Cryotherapy

      Whole-body cryotherapy is a non-invasive therapy that involves exposure of the entire body to cold air to achieve therapeutic and recovery benefits. Cryotherapy sessions targeting the whole body can improve your mental state and blood circulation, reduce inflammation, and accelerate cellular recovery.

      Cold Plunge vs Cryotherapy: Conclusion

      Cold water immersion and cryotherapy, if done correctly, can let you experience various health benefits and help with recovery. The effectiveness of these two intense cold exposure practices comes down to an individual’s resilience and will.

      Ice baths provide convenience and accessibility; a beginner dipping their toes in cold therapy can experience the benefits of cold plunging from the comfort of their homes. On the other hand, cryotherapy takes the cup if we factor in the aspect of time; the sessions are shorter, and so is the recovery time.

      If you have the budget, time, and flexibility, there’s no reason you can’t take a plunge at home and book a cryotherapy session at your preferred center. They will positively impact your overall health and play a significant role in recovery.

       

       

      References
      1. Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water – a continuing subject of debate - PMC

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9518606/

      1. Immune system of cold-exposed and cold-adapted humans - PubMed

      https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8925815/

      1. Use of Cryotherapy for Managing Chronic Pain_ An Evidence-Based Narrative - PMC

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8119547/ 

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      About the Author: Joe Serrao, Owner of Strength Warehouse

      Joe leverages over 20 years of intense workout experience and six years in the fitness industry. As a former collegiate football player, Joe knows what it takes to stay in peak physical condition. He's dedicated to providing straightforward, expert advice on setting up home gyms, personal training spaces, and commercial facilities. Balancing his passion for fitness with being a devoted family man, Joe’s rigorous full-body and metcon workouts exemplify his commitment to staying strong and being a role model for his kids and customers alike.

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