Cryotherapy, or cold therapy, is any kind of treatment that uses near-freezing or freezing temperatures. It works by constricting blood vessels, which in turn can reduce blood flow to a particular area. While it may seem counterintuitive to want to reduce blood flow, by doing so to an area of the body with inflammation, it can help reduce associated swelling and discomfort. It also can help improve pain by reducing nerve activity.
Cryotherapy can be especially helpful for issues such as neuropathy, where the peripheral nervous system (any neurons outside of the brain and spinal cord) are malfunctioning. Common symptoms include tingling or numbness, pain, sensation changes such as an increased or decreased ability to feel things, loss of coordination, or muscle weakness.
While neuropathy is most common with diabetes, those with breast cancer are at risk given that some chemotherapies or radiation treatments can cause nerve damage. Up to 30 or 40% of people undergoing chemotherapy develop neuropathy to some degree, so cryotherapy is a simple, effective way that many breast cancer patients and those in survivorship can help manage the potential symptoms, both during and after treatments.
Concurrent administration of cryotherapy to hands and feet during specific chemotherapy treatments has been shown to help inhibit future neuropathy development, by limiting the ability for the drug to attack sensitive nerves in the limbs. Specific chemotherapies that have been considered with cold therapy for breast cancer are taxanes such as pacitaxel (Taxol), or docetaxel (Taxotere), which is commonly given to those with metastatic breast cancer. The more you take certain chemotherapies, the higher your risk for peripheral neuropathy: increasing dosage, frequency of treatment, or using a combination therapy can put you at a greater risk of nerve damage. By using cold therapy at the time of treatment, you may be able to more effectively mitigate the onset of future neuropathy.
Cold therapy is also something that you can use at home to help with neuropathy symptoms. Using cold therapy can look as simple as using an ice pack on an inflamed area or using an ice bath to help with generalized body pain. Or, if you want something stronger and have the resources for it, it’s also possible to get professional cryotherapy equipment for your home, including liquid nitrogen-chilled cryofans for specific body area treatments or whole-body cryosaunas.
Cryotherapy is a newer therapy in cancer care, and because it can reduce blood flow, there are risks that need to be considered. It’s not recommended for people with other medical conditions such as diabetes, where your ability to detect potential tissue damage is already reduced. If used for too long, cryotherapy can potentially result in skin burns or irritation, hypothermia, or the exacerbation of cardiovascular issues such as high blood pressure. It’s best to consult a healthcare provider if you’re unsure if cryotherapy is right for you.
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