The hot hype and cold reality of cryotherapy. Does it freeze your pains away?
By Kerry Lauerman
Sep 30 2016
A new ice age is here. And it’s making amazing promises of pain-free joints and sculpted abs.
Cryotherapy – a freezing treatment turned piping-hot health trend – is being hyped by spas across the country, many of which sprang up within the last year.
Among them, NYC Cryo in New York promises that cryotherapy leads to “quicker surgical recovery time.” Thrive CryoStudio in Rockville, Md., claims it “alleviates symptoms from joint disorders, rheumatoid diseases, fibromyalgia, psoriasis and migraines.” Atlanta’s Cryo Elite Therapy said it “has been proven to improve peak levels of performance.” Omaha’s Ice Out CryoSpa boasts “alleviation of depression, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia.” CryoSF in San Francisco says the treatment “helps increase testosterone in men” and “reduce signs of aging, increases collagen production, improve skin condition and reduce cellulite.”
The problem: There’s no solid scientific evidence to back any of it up. And the Federal Drug Administration is warning spas to stop making such claims.
There’s actually very little research on cryotherapy at all. “The evidence is lacking for me to say yes, it’s effective, or no, it’s not effective,” says Joseph Costello, a lecturer in exercise physiology at the University of Portsmouth, in England, who wrote a much-cited review of all the available research on whole body cryotherapy last year.
That isn’t stopping untold thousands from lining up every week to follow the likes of LeBron James, Tony Robbins and sundry celebrities and “Real Housewives” into cylindrical cryotherapy chambers, where they get blasted from the neck down with abominably cold air.
What does cryotherapy do, exactly? Advocates like to say that the cold air forces blood to your core, tricking the body into thinking it’s experiencing hypothermia. From there, the claims get a bit fuzzy. Whole body cryotherapy believers say it acts as a super-charged ice bath, allowing muscles and tendons to more quickly recover from heavy training or pain, reducing inflammation. And many just claim, in the most unscientific of terms, that they feel energized by the treatment.
To find out what it feels like, I visited DistrictCryo, a new Washington, D.C., spa, for a three-minute session with air pouring in at – 215 degrees Fahrenheit (mine was a “warmer” treatment; the air temperature can drop to – 275 degrees). I wore socks, slippers and gloves they gave me (men are also asked to keep their briefs on) and a robe, which I removed and handed over once I was entombed in the chamber. Moments in, there was a burning sensation on my forearms — minor perspiration turning to ice? — that disappeared within seconds. It felt unnaturally cold, as it should, since the air dropped well below earthly temperatures (the lowest ever recorded at ground level is −128.6 °F).
My teeth chattered, I shivered; it was unpleasant but not intolerable. And afterward, I experienced a giddy surge of endorphins that lifted me for about an hour.
But I couldn’t discern whether any of it was caused by the cryotherapy or my own nerves, jangled from the peculiar experience. The minor sense of euphoria was similar to how I felt after surviving a particularly rough airplane landing a few weeks earlier. Was it cold-induced “vasodilation,” as cryo-experts would tell you, or just adrenaline-fueled relief?
Following the oversize claims made by some cryotherapy providers — and after the death of one person in a cryotherapy chamber last year — the FDA issued a strongly worded warning against whole body cryotherapy in July. “[C]onsumers may incorrectly believe that the FDA has cleared or approved [whole body cryotherapy] devices as safe and effective to treat medical conditions,” Aron Yustein, a medical officer in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in the FDA release. “That is not the case.”