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Kristine Thomason is the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen. 980nm Laser
If you’ve spent any time with mindbodygreen this year, you’ve likely come across the many benefits of cold therapy, also broadly referred to as cryotherapy. Whether you’re easing into a cold plunge tub or stepping into a whole body cryotherapy chamber, the benefits of chilly temperatures abound. Research suggests the practice may help support sleep1 , manage inflammation2 , ease pain3 , and promote muscle recovery4 , among other longevity-related perks.
On a recent episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, cold therapy expert Mark Harper, M.D., Ph.D. discussed the effects of cold water immersion. "I wrote a paper5 suggesting that by putting people through a cold water adaptation program before surgery, you could reduce the number of complications,” he explained. “One of the key aspects to why it might reduce complications is because cold water adaptation, as part of the response to stress, reduces your inflammatory response."
There are many ways to reap the many benefits of cryotherapy (jumping into a chilly body of water, taking a cold shower, to name a few). However, if you’re hoping to target a specific area of the body, you may want to consider a cold therapy machine. These devices offer quick relief after a difficult workout, and can help promote faster recovery from an injury.
Below, learn more about how these machines work, along with our picks for the best cold therapy machines of 2022.
Often used in hospitals or physical therapy clinics, cold therapy machines essentially offer the effects of an ice bath to a controlled, targeted area. Cold therapy machines use pads or wraps to adhere to specific body parts, as chilled water travels through tubes from a cooler, delivering continuous cold temperatures to the intended area.
“Different machines may work in different ways, some utilizing water as a conductor of heat where others may rely on more drastic shifts in ambient temperature,” says Charles Tabone, N.D., in-house naturopathic doctor at Pause Studio in Los Angeles, CA. “Across the board, cold therapy machines are using the body’s physiological response to temperature change and piggybacking off the downstream effects.”
One effect of these machines is that the cold temperature application can cause vasoconstriction6 (your blood vessels get smaller and constrict blood flow). When the cold is removed, your blood vessels open up (vasodilation), which may help with muscle reoxygenation7 and recovery.
In case you don't want to take daily trips to a doctor's office or clinic, there are a number of cold therapy devices available for home use. The exact mechanics vary slightly across different brands and models, so the right choice depends on your specific wants and needs—which should always be discussed with your healthcare provider.
As mentioned, adding cryotherapy to your routine brings a number of benefits, and a cold therapy machine can be a convenient, effective method for targeted treatment.
However, Tabone does offer caution around using these devices for longer than the recommended amount of time, explaining that, “If tissue gets too cold for too long, damage can occur.” It’s also important to be aware of any manufacturer safety warnings, particularly because these machines use both water and electricity.
As with any new practice, it’s a good idea to speak with your healthcare practitioner before implementing cold therapy into your routine. Specifically, Tabone says “Anyone of extreme (young or old) age, individuals with serious cardiovascular conditions, pregnant women, and people with major wound healing” should take extra caution.
Cost is another factor to consider. “It’s far more economical to stand in a cold shower or jump into a cool body of water,” Tabone agrees. “On a plus side, though, often it’s the investment in a recovery device or membership that helps cement a routine, the most important thing is finding a way to maintain a practice.”
If a cold therapy machine feels like it would be a beneficial device to add into your recovery regimen, there are a few factors to keep in mind. “Not all devices will be equal, and safety standards are very important to reduce risk of harm,” explains Tabone. “Water is also a better conductor of heat than air, and devices that use water will often be more efficacious.”
Consider how you’ll be using the cold therapy machine: Does it need to be fully portable? If so, you may prefer a battery-powered option. Are you looking to treat a specific body part? Make sure the machine comes with compatible therapy pads.
If a cold therapy machine is too much of a hassle, you won’t use it. That’s why we looked for options that are simple to set up and use at home.
We took customer feedback into consideration, seeking out options with the highest ratings and most glowing reviews.
Per our expert’s recommendation, we opted for cold therapy units that use water as the conductor, rather than air.
While there are a wide variety of cold therapy machines on the market, we found the best options under $400.
This FSA-approved cold therapy machine was specifically designed to help with post-surgery recovery (and multiple reviewers even called out how helpful it was with pre-and post-knee replacement surgery). The system used a motorized pump to consistently circulate cold water around the knee through an insulated therapy pad. This universal pad can be used on the knee, where it offered a bit of compression, or with a handful of compression wraps to target other body parts, like your lower back, hips, or shoulder.
Each cooling reservoir can be used with ice or frozen water bottles, which last longer. Once the reservoir is filled is filled, you can use the programmable digital timer to determine the desired water temperature and length of your treatment. Just remember you'll need to stay within 5 feet of the compression machine. Luckily, there are optional 12-volt DC adapters and portable batteries available for treatment on the go.
This targeted cryo system is ideal for anyone recovering from a shoulder injury, when used with the shoulder cuff attachment. Instead of a motor, the device relies on a gravity-fed system to delivery cold water to the therapeutic cuff for up to 8 hours of cryotherapy.
When used with the shoulder cuff, it covers the entire shoulder, circulating over the effect area. It also offers controlled compression, which helps minimize swelling and pain. A number of reviews say the Aircast offered relief after rotator-cuff surgery, and helps keep inflammation at bay.
Just remember the Aircast DonJoy Cold Therapy system and the shoulder cuff are sold separately.
This quiet, compact cold therapy machine delivers relief to your entire body. Simply fill the cooling reservoir with up to 6 liters of ice water and prepare for 30 minutes of continuous relief. Use the LED display screen on the unit to adjust the water temperature and keep track of how much time you have left.
Similar to other designs, it opts for a universal cooling pad, which can be attached to ankles, knees, legs, hips, elbows, shoulders, or arms using the included elastic straps. However, the portability of this design is what really sets it apart; the handle can easily be tucked into the unit and the flexible pad can be folded for transport. Testers only have positive things to say about the device, giving it positive feedback for providing relief after surgery, an intense workout, and more.
This ultra-versatile system runs on a battery pack for total portability. You’ll get 10 to 14 hours of use from this water-fueled system, which can be purchased the its own, or with Breg’s signature Intelli-Flo pads for various parts of the body. A number of customers rave about how helpful this system was for pain management. Although it doesn’t have an internal timer, many reviews recommend using a smart plug. This workaround could apply to any of the machines above, too.
Cold therapy is fantastic for all of the reasons we’ve already covered, but alternating cold and heat (also known as contrast therapy) comes with an additional slew of benefits. The combination can be helpful for offering relief from pain and swelling, while providing a soothing effect for the joints and muscles. That’s why this at-home system is worth a mention: It features an automatic temperature control (regulated by LED lighting) that allows the machine to pivot between hot and cold.
While this unit offers a number of different therapy “blankets” or pads, many customers highlight how it was particularly helpful following knee replacement surgery, especially because of how easy it is to transport.
This cold therapy machine is the product of over 20 years of research and customer feedback—resulting in a system with rave reviews. It features a patented dual pump recirculation system, which helps keep the temperature extra cold, no matter what part of the body you’re targeting. While they don’t come with the unit, you can purchase a number of different pads to fit various areas of the body, including hips, foot, knee, shoulder, and a “universal” option.
Customers also call out that the system works better when you add frozen water bottles to the cooler, rather than ice cubes.
According to research, cold therapy can help reduce feelings of muscle soreness after a workout. It may also help manage pain and promote recovery.
In cases of extreme overuse, tissue damage or frostbite could potentially occur. It’s always best to consult with a healthcare professional before using a new cold therapy machine, to make sure it’s the healthiest choice for your body.
Speak with your healthcare provider about the best frequency, compression level, temperature, duration of use, and total length of treatment for your cold therapy machine.
While concentrated cold therapy machines do not have exactly the same effects as a full cryotherapy chamber or cold water immersion, rave reviews and expert input suggest that they’re a useful tool for at-home recovery from surgery, an injury, or a more strenuous workout. If you’re looking for more devices to boost your recovery from home, check out our roundup of the best compression boots, or even massage chairs.
Kristine Thomason is the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen.
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