I Know What -240 Degrees Feels Like
Two minutes in a cryotherapy chamber might sound like (frozen) hell on earth, but a 9-year-old did it and so did I. It was awesome.
Thirty seconds. It’s the length of a commercial, or a time-out in college basketball. But when you’re standing in a subzero-temperature cryotherapy chamber and your technician tells you that you’ve got only 30 seconds left, you want to scream “THAT MIGHT AS WELL BE A LIFETIME!”
How did I get here? Well, I had heard that more and more athletes were turning to cryotherapy for pain relief and recuperation. The treatment sounded frightening—you’re surrounded by liquid nitrogen!—but I wondered if it might help with the back pain from my herniated disk.
My curiosity brought me to Lincoln Park’s Chicago CryoSpa (2640 N. Lincoln Ave.), where I met with owner Jim Karas. He told me that his is the only facility of its kind in the state (apparently the next closest one is in Minneapolis, and it’s private—only the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves get to use the chamber).
Jim walked me through the whole treatment and assured me multiple times that I wouldn’t die. Check out the video below to learn the five fundamentals of cryotherapy (and watch me freeze). Then, read on for a timeline of my visit and results.
First, I got naked. I walked past the reception desk and into a private dressing room, where I swapped my street clothes for a cushy spa robe, slippers, socks, and gloves. Women have to be completely naked for the treatment otherwise, but men can keep their underwear on (they’re a little more sensitive to the cold, if you know what I mean).
Then, I got scared. When I entered the treatment room, the shiny silver chamber was hissing at me. I was told that the sound comes from the liquid nitrogen accumulating inside, but at that point I was questioning my choice to step into the weird snake-pod.
The door opened with a whoosh. I glimpsed a digital thermometer at the top that read -104 degrees. Not too terrible, I thought—until I realized the number was in degrees Celsius.
Once I was enclosed in the chamber, a rising platform lifted me until my head and neck were exposed through the open top. I relaxed a bit. If things get really bad, I thought, maybe I can just hurdle out.
It got very cold… As the temperature plunged throughout the two-minute session, my technician (bless her heart) did her darndest to keep me from thinking about becoming a me-sicle. She encouraged me to watch the flat-screen TV or the passersby who were walking down Lincoln Avenue. Through the window, I saw happy people walking their happy dogs and I wondered if I would ever smile again. That’s when I got the 30-second warning.
Finally, I was warm again. As soon as I stepped out of the chamber, I felt instant relief. My skin was covered in giant goosebumps, but they faded as soon as I jumped on a stationary bike. The pedaling helped blood to flow back into my limbs, and warmed me up within a minute or so.
I felt better! Jim had told me that I might experience a rush of energy, because the cold gets your adrenaline pumping. I did feel energized, but more importantly, my back didn’t hurt quite as much. Here’s how you know I’m serious: I committed to five consecutive days of cryotherapy the following week.
At the end of that week, I drove to Cincinnati to visit family. Sitting in a car for that long would typically set my back on fire, but I felt great the entire weekend, even when I was chasing my cousin’s baby around.
Want to try it?
According to Jim, cryotherapy is like “an ice pack on steroids.” That’s why it’s so popular with athletes and those who suffer from chronic pain—the intense cold can help minimize inflammation from injuries and ease the recovery process. (Some people also believe that it encourages weight loss, but the calorie-burn you get is more of a bonus than a feature.)
That said, you don’t have to be an athlete or nursing an injury to get the treatment. Jim had people coming in all winter to build up tolerance to the cold outside, and during one of my visits, I met a 9-year-old gymnast who was a regular client.
Jim did say that the chamber wasn’t meant for people with extremely high blood pressure or larger builds (you can’t touch the interior walls). If either description applies to you, you can still try the spa’s localized cryotherapy services—they target specific areas on the body with a tool that looks like an elephant trunk.
Photo: Jeff Bivens, Groupon