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Rugby World Cup freezing treatment may not work

Rugby players are exposing themselves to extreme cold to improve recovery and reduce muscle soreness

Rugby players are exposing themselves to extreme cold to improve their physical recovery

The Welsh, English and Italian rugby teams’ much-loved cold therapy treatment, which aims to improve recovery and reduce muscle soreness, may not work.

Newly published research from the University of Portsmouth found there is little or no evidence to suggest that exposing the body to extremely cold air after exercise has a positive effect on an athlete’s recovery.

The treatment, known as whole-body cryotherapy (WBC), involves single or repeated exposures to cold dry air below -100°C in a specialised chamber or cabin for two to four minutes. The individual can experience temperatures over 50°C colder than −89.2°C, which is the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth.

Dr Joseph Costello, from the University’s Department of Sport and Exercise Science, led the study.

He said: “Ice baths have been used for years in an attempt to speed up recovery after exercise and this new method is believed to further enhance recovery after gruelling matches and training.

“There is immense pressure on elite athletes to be in peak physical condition during competitions such as the Rugby World Cup and these players and their coaches will attempt to use technology to improve recovery and maximise subsequent performances. However, the efficiency and safety of whole-body cryotherapy are currently not known.”

The research compared the effects of WBC to no treatment or a placebo in 64 physically active young adults. It found the current evidence is insufficient to support the use of the new treatment in preventing or treating muscle soreness after exercise.

Dr Costello said: “The treatment has been used by the Welsh rugby team since the 2011 World Cup, when their coach took the squad to Poland for sessions before they headed to New Zealand. And there have already been reports of England star Sam Burgess using the treatment during the current World Cup campaign.

“It looks like the Italians are also quite taken by the treatment, as Italy’s flanker Mauro Bergamasco and team-mates were captured on camera inside a cryotherapy chamber in Surrey, in preparation for their match against France last Saturday.

“However WBC is still causing much debate among the media, physiologists, physiotherapists, clinicians and sports people regarding its effectiveness and potential risks. More research needs to be conducted to find out just what effect this treatment has or indeed what damage it could be doing.”

Dr Costello worked with leading researchers and sport scientists from Queensland University of Technology in Australia and the French National Institute of Sport on the systematic review, which was published in the prestigious health and medical journal The Cochrane Library.

2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Forgive my ignorance, but can you explain how you can have a placebo for WBC?

    Thank you

    • Hi Gary;

      It is extremely difficult to create a placebo/sham treatment for WBC due to the extreme temperatures. We have discussed this in the study. Most studies use passive rest or a warmer temperature (e.g. 15 degrees C) as a comparison. Additional studies comparing the effectiveness of this treatment versus active recovery and cold water immersion are required. If you have any further questions please let me know.



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