Whole-Body Cryotherapy a Hot New Treatment for Depression?

Liam Davenport

April 11, 2019

WARSAW, Poland — Adjunctive whole-body cryotherapy may convey added benefit in patients with depressive disorders, new research suggests.

This type of therapy, which involves subjecting the body to extremely low temperatures for short periods of time, is already used in rheumatoid and neurologic conditions, as well as for biological rejuvenation in athletes.

There is also a small, but growing, body of evidence that the technique may be used in mood disorders, potentially through the modulation of inflammatory or immunologic markers.

In the current randomized study of more than 50 patients already receiving treatment for depression, those exposed to "true cryotherapy" once daily for 10 days experienced significant improvements in depression scores and in measures of motivation, mood, and sleep quality compared with those exposed to low but non-cryotherapy temperatures.

These early results "are very promising and we think [cryotherapy] is worth further exploration" as an adjuvant treatment in depression, said Julia Rymaszewska, a student in the Psychiatry Department at Wrocław Medical University, Poland.

She presented the findings here at the European Psychiatric Association (EPA) 2019 Congress.

To test the use of cryotherapy in depression, the investigators initially assessed 117 patients with depressive disorder already receiving standard psychopharmacology therapy.

From these, 56 patients were randomly assigned to an experimental group
(n = 30) or a control group (n = 26).

Both groups underwent 2- to 3-minute sessions of whole-body cryotherapy once a day for 10 days. The experimental group was exposed to a true cryotherapy temperature of -110°C to -160°C (-166°F to -256°F), while the control group experienced a sham protocol with a temperature of -50°C (-58°F).

The participants completed the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and a visual analog scale assessing level of motivation, mood, and sleep quality before, during, and after the treatment period.

Patients who experienced true whole-body cryotherapy showed significant improvements on the BDI compared with the control group, who had relatively stable scores.

In particular, patients in the experimental group showed significant reductions in scores on both the cognitive-affective (P = .000) and the somatic (P = .028) BDI subscales.

Patients in the experimental group also reported significant increases in scores on the visual analog scale compared with those in the control group (P = .035), albeit with both groups showing improvements over the course of the study.

Feasible? Cost Effective?

Jessica Bone, a PhD candidate in the Division of Psychiatry, University College London, UK, chaired the poster presentation. She described the study as "intriguing" but was unsure as to the principle of how cryotherapy would work in depression.

"I would like to hear a bit more about the overall findings from the trial and see the results presented again in more detail," she told Medscape Medical News.

Bone also expressed doubts over the cost effectiveness and feasibility of cryotherapy in this setting, wondering "therefore how practical it would be on a clinical level."

Nevertheless, she said that the potential link with the inflammatory therapy of depression is "very interesting" and that "there is a lot more research to be done in that area."

The study was supported by the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The study authors and Bone have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

European Psychiatric Association (EPA) 2019 Congress: Poster EPA19-2584. Presented April 8, 2019.

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