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Would you like ice with that? Whole-body cryotherapy for horses!

Horse in CryotherapyThe application of ice or snow or very cold water or packs containing cooling gels which have been cooled in freezers to relieve inflammation, pain and swelling is a commonly used first-aid technique for both people and animals. However whole-body cryotherapy (WBC), the exposure of people to very cold temperatures in chambers without direct contact with air temperatures in the region of -110°C to -140°C for several minutes, is something that has been more controversial. The claims for WBC are also pretty extensive and include reducing pain, decreasing muscle spasms, reducing inflammation, resolving oedema, reducing fever, speeding recovery, preventing injury, reducing muscle fatigue, and increasing metabolism. To name a few. The last one is particularly interesting as cold is often used to slow metabolism.

WBC has become very popular for recovery in human athletes, despite the fact that there is limited evidence to support its value. A recent review concluded “there is relatively weak, but supportive literature with regard to benefits” (Patel et al. 2019). WBC can also be associated with side-effects, including pain, numbness, burns and may cause asthma attacks. One of the first cryotherapy chambers for horses was introduced in Dubai around 3 years ago.

A recent study from a group of French researchers studied the response of five three-year old Thoroughbred mares in race training to 3 minutes exposure in a chamber to air at -140°C. This is the protocol typically used for human athletes. However, this duration of exposure had no significant effect on the horses’ surface temperature as assessed by thermography. Due to both its size and the presence of hair, it is perhaps not surprising that the horses were not affected. The authors did not report any adverse effects on the horses so it is assumed none occurred. The authors concluded that “The benefits of WBC on muscle recovery in equestrian sport seem illusory at the current state when protocols are transposed from humans (3 min at 140°C) to horses. Indeed, the recorded skin variations seem far too small to be able to induce interesting therapeutic or muscle recovery effects. Future studies appear necessary and should therefore focus on analyzing cold exposure duration to define an appropriate protocol for race horses.” Back to the drawing board.

Bogard F, Bouchet B, Murer S, Filliard JR, Beaumont F, Polidori G. (2020) Critical Evaluation of Whole-Body Cryostimulation Protocol in Race Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2020 May;88:102944. Available HERE

Patel K, Bakshi N, Freehill MT, Awan TM. (2019) Whole-Body Cryotherapy in Sports Medicine. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2019 Apr;18(4):136-140. Available HERE

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