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Rate My Recovery: The Healing Benefits of Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy heals your body by “freezing” it in a metal tank. Science says otherwise.

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Rate My Recovery: Cryotherapy

Along with stretching and foam rolling post-workout, how about spending three minutes sealed in a freezing tank to relieve pain, speed up recovery, and increase your metabolic rate? That’s allegedly what whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) will do. The new trend is being touted as an alternative to the universally dreaded and nut-shrinking ice baths as a recovery and performance enhancer. The gist? The body is enveloped in a tube that pumps air cooled by liquid nitrogen between -184° and -292° F., tricking the brain into “fight or flight” mode to draw all the blood out of the extremities to the core. Afterward, the blood rushes back to the extremities and brain, releasing endorphins and triggering a state of euphoria.

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Does it work? I went to KryoLife in New York City and met with its co-founder Eduardo Bohórquez-Barona to find out.

“Cryotherapy may seem bizarre because the U.S. medical culture is skeptical about it. But from what we see with our clients and from the research in Europe, WBC can do a lot and we hope to educate the public on the benefits,” says Bohórquez-Barona.

MORE INFO ON CRYOTHERAPY

ORIGINS

Whole-body cryotherapy was invented in Japan in 1978 as a means to reduce pain and inflammation in patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.

The technology was then developed and studied in Europe. Today, while many athletes and gym goers swear by the physical and mental benefits of a whole-body cryotherapy session, there are few scientific studies that back up it up.

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WHAT IT’S LIKE

I stripped down to just my undies, socks, and a pair of gloves at KryoLife, where I was led into its sub-zero chamber—an eight-foot metal canister with freezing fog billowing out the top. After my body was submerged up to my shoulders, the immediate cold was hardly noticeable since it takes your brain time to adjust. It’s nothing like plummeting into an ice bath, where the shock is instant and painful.

It’s a gradual cold, which spreads initially from the elbows and thighs, creating a dull numbness. The feeling is more temporary discomfort than pain, which I’d say is about a 3 out of 10. There’s a therapist with you who operates the machine and is in the room the whole time—you’re never supposed to be alone. A KryoLife therapist coached me the entire time and said stuff like, “You’ve made it a minute thirty, great job. Almost there!” The aftereffects are similar to a subtle, extremely focused and happy high that lasts for a few hours following the session. KryoLife doesn’t make you sign a liability waiver, but it requires you to fill out your medical history. A single WBC session costs $75–$90.

FREQUENCY

Three minutes per session, which can be done daily. Anything more than three minutes, you run the risk of freezing your body.

SIDE EFFECTS

Patients have experienced red skin, a tingling sensation, and a euphoric state. However, those who suffer from cardiovascular issues, Raynaud’s disease, pregnant women, or people with active cancer should not use WBC since it places additional stressors on a body that is already stressed.

WHO’S USING IT

Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. are all cryo converts. The Denver Nuggets, Kansas City Royals, L.A. Lakers, and New York Knicks are also putting cryotherapy beds into their locker rooms or making treatments available to their players.

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SUPPORTING SCIENCE

“The idea is to freeze your body as a means to supposedly help you recover after a workout and decrease pain,” says Houman Danesh, M.D., director of Integrative Pain Management at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “But there is no evidence on the benefits. And in reality, while the temperature number looks like it’s getting cold, the temperature that you feel on your skin isn’t as cold as you think. Air is a poor medium to transfer temperature, so while it reads -292°, what you’re really feeling on the skin is equivalent to applying an ice pack directly to the area.” But where WBC differs from an ice pack is that it is directly shocking the system, triggering that feeling of euphoria that is so common among cryo users. “It’s no different from an ice bath,” Danesh adds. “It’s just easier and quicker.”

CONTRADICTING SCIENCE

The FDA issued a statement in July addressing the lack of evidence that supports the benefits of cryotherapy. “Despite claims by many spas and wellness centers to the contrary, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have evidence that whole-body cryotherapy effectively treats diseases or conditions like Alzheimer’s, fibromyalgia, migraines, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, stress, anxiety, or chronic pain.”

The statement goes so far as to claim that hazards include asphyxiation, frostbite, burns, and eye injury from the extreme temps.

“A sudden cold response can trigger certain people to stop breathing,” adds Danesh. “That’s why the FDA is against these beds. Many young, healthy people don’t know that they have breathing issues and aren’t aware of how this experience might affect them. It’s rare, but it can happen.”

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