Dr. Liam Hennessy is the Fitness Director of the IRFU. He has been using cryotherapy on IRFU players for 6 years.
Cryotherapy is the removal of heat from a body part to decrease cellular metabolism, increase cellular survival, decrease inflammation and decrease pain and spasm.
The IRFU have been doing research in this area. They use cryotherapy specifically for limiting the damage caused by training, allowing players to recover faster between training sessions.
When an athlete trains hard micro-damage occurs in the muscles. Cryotherapy works in the same way that putting ice on something to reduce swelling but on a micro level. Instead of temperatures of +4 which only treat the superficial layer of the skin - you’re talking about temperatures of -110 which penetrate to the muscle level. Cryotherapy affects the neuro-muscular system and endocrine system of the body.
There are 3 areas that the IRFU have focused their research on:
- Cryotheraphy after training reduces the level of a damaging enzyme and limits the damaging affect of it on player’s muscles.
- The endorphin effect- As Liam says you get massive doses of the ‘happy hormone’ – you’re delighted you didn’t die in the extreme cold
- Increased testosterone – Another positive mechanism (if you’re a monster Rugby player) are increased testosterone levels to help you dominate the opposition.
In injury and rehabilitation situations there is limited evidence that cryotherapy is beneficial. A plethora of areas have jumped on the cryotherapy bandwagon and there are claims that it benefits things like multiple sclerosis and arthritic conditions but there is limited or no research to support this.
Liam is convinced that cryotherapy works for the IRFU in very specific circumstances. They never use it for injury treatment or rehabilitation only for faster recovery from training. It is a domain that needs investigation because of the limited evidence.
As far as he is concerned they are the only research centre in Western Europe that do studies with controlled professional sports people. They are starting a comprehensive research project with the University of Limerick into the whole area in a couple of months.