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On a recent Thursday morning, I found myself stripped down to my undergarments, a pair of mittens, socks, and clogs. I was standing in a padded cylindrical tank hovering somewhere around -188°F, with only my head avoiding the extreme cold. My goal: to experience whole- body cryotherapy firsthand at a center called 256 Below in Millburn, NJ. The technique, which is gaining in popularity among athletes and fitness enthusiasts, is said to reduce inflammation and fight aches and pains in much the same way that taking an ice bath can—but in a shorter amount of time. And while the sessions last only three minutes, you’ll purportedly experience the benefits for several hours post-treatment.
“Exposing your body to extreme cold triggers a fight-or-flight response from the pain receptors in the skin,” says Stan Kapica, the owner of 256 Below. This elevates hormone levels while increasing circulation to your core since blood instinctively travels to your internal organs to protect them against the cold. The short exposure helps keep the process safe, Kapica adds, since your core temperature is not fundamentally affected by the frigid temps. “Your skin temperature can go down to 35°F, but it’s topical, so you avoid risk of hypothermia.”
My first minute of cryo seemed mild enough as I chatted with the technician who was in the room to make sure I was safe and to keep my mind off the cold. But at about the halfway mark, I began to shiver and the cold seemed to bite with each passing second. As I stepped out of the tank, I felt pins and needles in my hands and feet. Luckily, by the time I changed and warmed up, I began to feel the blood rush back into my limbs, and within 10 minutes, I felt energized and clearheaded.
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This is where the benefits start to add up, Kapica says. “A few hours after a treatment, as your blood returns to the extremities, it brings in fresh red blood cells while flushing out inflammation,” he says. “Your newly post hypothermic state also creates an endorphin rush like a runner’s high.” While I felt invigorated after my time in the cryo tank, scientific studies that back the technique are still a bit scarce. “There definitely seems to be some anti-inflammatory benefits to cryotherapy,” says Bruce Lee, M.D., an associate professor of international health and executive director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) at Johns Hopkins University. “Typically, your body will increase blood flow to an injured area, which assists in healing but also creates the inflammation that causes discomfort,” he says. With cryotherapy, the below-freezing temps decrease blood flow, which reduces pain and inflammation.
Cryotherapy proponents claim a long list of benefits, including an elevated metabolic rate and improved athletic performance. But so far the evidence is limited. “There’s a difference between scientifically proven facts and claims. And much of what is being touted has not been substantiated,” Lee says. Any effects you do experience tend to be short-lived. “There isn’t clear evidence that cryotherapy will provide long-term changes to keep pain from coming back, so it must be repeated again and again to maintain a benefit,” he adds. Considering each session can set you back $40 to $75, it’s potentially an expensive short-term solution.
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That hasn’t stopped many fitness enthusiasts from signing up for sessions. Journalist and fitness expert Jenna Wolfe, for one, started the treatments while training for a Spartan Race to help manage knee pain stemming from her years as a collegiate volleyball player. “When I walked out of the tank, I felt like I could pretty much conquer anything, including a supertough training session,” Wolfe says. Eventually, the treatment helped her overcome her injury. “It didn’t heal my knee, but it allowed me to complete that Spartan Race. It was the first time I was able to go up and down a mountain without pain,” Wolfe says.
While I didn’t have an injury to cope with, I did feel my mood lifted for hours after I left the cryo center and stronger and more focused during my workout. The next day, I was definitely less sore after I lifted weights. While cryotherapy isn’t necessarily something I would invest in on a regular basis, for now it at least seems like the new, cool thing to do.
-180°F TO -260°F is the approximate temperature range in a cryo tank (the more body mass you have, the lower the temperature may be set.) Most women won’t go below -220°F.
600 is the number of cryotherapy centers in the US.
3 minutes is the maximum length of a cryo treatment.
Avoid cryotherapy if you’re pregnant, have a pacemaker, or have severe hypertension, arrhythmia, venous thrombosis, severe anemia, or diabetes.