What Is Cryotherapy?
Two minutes is the average length of a commercial break, and it irritates enough of us that fast-forwarding live TV is a common habit. Now imagine standing in a subzero cryotherapy chamber for that same length of time. Living without TiVo doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Groupon beauty editor Favin actually chose to put my body through this, yet it wasn’t something she did for fun. She was inspired by the athletes using cryotherapy after trying workouts and competitions to aid in pain relief and recuperation. Favin isn't be an athlete, but she wondered whether this extreme form of cold therapy might help with the back pain from her herniated disk. Here’s what she discovered:
What is cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy is like “an ice pack on steroids,” said Jim Karas, the owner of Chicago CryoSpa, where Favin tried out the treatment. That’s why it’s so popular with athletes and those who suffer from chronic pain—the intense cold is said to minimize inflammation from injuries and ease the recovery process. Best of all, you only have to spend a few minutes in the chamber, as opposed to the 6–10 minutes you might have to spend in a traditional ice bath or the arms of a snowman to get similar results.
What’s going on in the cryotherapy chamber?
Under supervision, a minimally clothed person (close-fitting shorts for men, shorts and a sports bra or crop top for women) steps inside a cylindrical chamber about as tall as their shoulders, leaving their head and neck exposed. Their body is then bathed in liquid nitrogen or refrigerated cold air, with temperatures dipping to -250 degrees Fahrenheit. Clients remain in the cold for 2–4 minutes, depending on how experienced they are with the therapy. Though their skin surface temperature drops by dozens of degrees, the short duration keeps their core body temperature at largely normal levels.
What does it feel like?
- There’s no doubt that you’ll feel really cold. As the temperature plunged throughout the two-minute session, Favin's technician (bless her heart) did her darndest to keep her from thinking about becoming a popsicle. She encouraged Favin to watch the flat-screen TV or spy on passersby on the street outside.
- But the duration is definitely bearable. As soon as Favin stepped out of the chamber, she felt instant relief. Her skin was covered in giant goosebumps, but they faded as soon as she did some exercises to help blood to flow back into her limbs and warm her up.
- And she felt better! In addition to feeling a rush of energy from the adrenaline coursing through her body, Favin noticed that her back didn’t hurt quite as much. And here’s how you know she's serious: she committed to five consecutive days of cryotherapy the following week.
How does it work?
- Reducing skin temperature: The cryotherapy chamber causes a significant drop in surface body temperature, which proponents say causes the brain to think that you’re in distress. The brain responds to cold by drawing blood to the core—you know, where all those important organs are—and away from the extremities. Once you step out of the chamber, oxygenated blood is redistributed to the extremities.
- Constricting blood vessels: Vasoconstriction limits blood flow to the cold-affected areas (in this case, most of your body), which helps reduce inflammation.
- Psychological effect: Many clients report feeling energized and euphoric after a session. The release of endorphins and adrenaline may help elevate your mood, researchers suggest, but there’s not a lot of evidence to say so conclusively.
What does it treat?
Although cold therapy has been used for ages by athletes recovering from injuries and overworked muscles, there hasn’t been a ton of research into its potential benefits. The FDA has not yet approved whole-body cryotherapy as a medical treatment. Here’s what it some proponents say it helps with:
- Musculoskeletal pain: Restricting blood flow and redirecting it to vital organs is said to reduce inflammation. According to cryotherapy supporters, when oxygenated blood returns returns to the extremities and the body’s surface, it may help trigger cell renewal and repair. Cold may also slow down nerves’ signals to the brain, which can provide a pain-relieving effect.
- Weight: Some believe that multiple cryotherapy sessions encourage weight loss by boosting the metabolism. Cold temperatures do indeed force the body to work harder to burn calories, but research is limited on how sustainable or effective that process is.
- Cold tolerance: Chicago CryoSpa’s Karas said he has had people coming in throughout winter to help their bodies build up a tolerance to the cold outside.
- Headache: Localized cryotherapy services employ a hand-operated tool to target specific areas of the body with extreme cold. Applying cold to the head may help mitigate headache pain and shorten the duration.
What are the possible side effects?
Given the lack of extensive research into cryotherapy’s results, our knowledge of its side effects is also limited. But we do know a few things:
- Protection: Every cryotherapy spa should hand out thick socks and gloves to protect clients’ most sensitive areas against frostbite.
- Space: In a similar vein, every spa should enforce the spatial limits of its chamber. People with larger builds may not be able to use certain equipment because skin cannot touch the interior walls. (Think of the famous tongue-to-pole scene in A Christmas Story.) Localized cryotherapy may be an option for such clients.
- Precautions: Because vasoconstriction is an essential part of the process, cryotherapy is not recommended for those with severe high blood pressure and heart problems.
How much does cryotherapy cost?
Without a Groupon, a single cryotherapy session typically costs between $50 and $100. Most clinics offer packages or monthly memberships with special pricing for repeat visitors.
Photos of Favin by Jeff Bivens, Groupon