Cryotherapy: The Cool, New Thing

By Amy Dresner 02/03/17

As my determination and endorphins kicked, I started to pound my fists on his chest. “See! You have NO idea how hardcore I am! I’m HARDCORE!”

Cryotherapy: The Cool, New Thing
What IS the truth about cryotherapy?

If you haven’t heard of “cryotherapy” yet, believe me, you will. It’s the new gimmicky space-age panacea of 2016. A decade ago, when I was trying to kick IV cocaine, it was all about colonics and juicing. Now it seems to be about cryotherapy and crossfit.

Still one to “try anything once” and ever on the lookout for a passive magic bullet to my problems, I decided to give it a shot.

My normie boyfriend, Mr. Jiu Jitsu, was convinced cryotherapy was THE solution. And because of that was maxing out his Capital One card at the nearby Cryohealthcare on La Cienega, instead of doing the adult, responsible thing and buying me overpriced vintage t-shirts on eBay.

As soon as we walked into the very chic medical spa (which looked like a West Elm showroom, if they only had white furniture) I saw a chiseled guy behind the desk with the give-away program tattoo: his sobriety date inked onto the inside of his forearm. Ahh, I thought, the popularity of this new fad has got to be about the rush it gives you.

As a first timer to cryo, they told me I was not allowed to stay in the whole body immersion chamber for more than two minutes (the max is three minutes, except for extreme athletes with doctor’s scripts, who can do three-and-a-half minutes). They then told me to sign a waiver that basically said if I died, “Oopsies!” I also had to confirm that I was aware that cryotherapy is contraindicated in people with a history of high blood pressure, stroke, Raynaud’s disease, with a pacemaker or—duh—an allergy to the cold.

After I paid my $65, they took my blood pressure and I was led off to a small changing room where I removed everything except my bra and panties. I donned the robe hanging inside and then was given knee-high Hanes socks, rubber shoes, wool gloves, a surgical face mask and earmuffs. (A hipster beanie is optional.) I basically looked like an Irish clog dancer dying of Ebola who just escaped from a mental hospital.

Now, let’s get one thing straight: I’m a skinny desert Jew and we skinny desert Jews HATE the cold. The three years I spent in Boston freezing my ass off in college were misery, so to say I was dreading this would be an understatement.

After psyching myself up like an Olympic gymnast about to do a floor routine, my guy opened the door for me and we stepped into the chamber.

“See,” he said. “This isn’t bad, right?”

It wasn’t. At all. Maybe I was tougher than I thought!

“This is it?!” I asked. “Psshaw! No problem!”

“This is just the changing area, retard,” he smiled. “Take off your robe and follow me.” And with that, he opened up another door to what I can only describe as the portal to Narnia or maybe the sixth or seventh ring of hell. I’m assuming it looked like a small freezing closet, but I couldn’t see shit because the entire area was filled with a white cloud of gasiform nitrogen.

As I stepped in, the cold hit me harder than my ex-husband’s restraining order.

“Oh my God!” I yelped, and I immediately turned for the door.

My boyfriend grabbed me by the arms and spun me to face him.

“It’s two minutes. Don’t be a pussy. You can do it.”

So imagine standing in your skivvies in the coldest freezer imaginable. (The chamber is cooled via liquid nitrogen and gets down to -200 degrees Fahrenheit.) On top of that, you can’t see a thing because it’s filled with white fog like a bad '80s hair band video. Plus, a large man is physically restraining you and laughing in your face…Come to think of it, sounds kinda hot...

You can custom pick the song you want piped into your ice box for your three minutes of pointless, self-inflicted torture, so I chose “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. My boyfriend and I knew about every 14th word, so we badly chanted the lyrics and jumped up and down to stay somewhat warm.

As my determination and endorphins kicked, I started to pound my fists on his chest. “I’m a badass. See! You have NO idea how hardcore I am! I’m HARDCORE!”

Just then, a soothing female voice came over the music indicating that two minutes had passed, and I could not get out of there fast enough. Within seconds, I was in my robe and inside the optional reheating chamber.

Like I suspected, I had a huge rush when I got out. But that’s probably because my endorphins and adrenaline were telling my body, “Jesus Christ, we almost froze to death!” And yes, it is invigorating, but so is jumping into a cold pool or rolling around in the snow or punching your boss in the face.

So, what IS the truth about cryotherapy?

Cryotherapy was originally developed in the late 1970s in Japan as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, however the benefits now being claimed range from boosting the immune system, reducing inflammation, improving sleep, burning calories and improving metabolism to reducing pain, speeding up healing, combating depression and anxiety, etc., etc.

Dr. Houman Danesh, director of Integrative Pain Medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, says cryotherapy chambers like this don’t do much medically, aside from inducing an adrenaline rush. “It activates the fight-or-flight response,” he’s quoted as saying, but he would not recommend it for treating pain.

U.S. Cryotherapy Centers were completely unregulated on a state or federal level until this past October, when a 24-year-old woman who worked at a cryotherapy spa in Nevada died. Chelsea Ake-Salvacion went in alone without supervision (not recommended) and possibly lost consciousness from the nitrogen gas when she bent down to pick up her dropped cell phone. She was found 10 hours later by other employees, frozen to death in a fetal position, her cell phone nearby. After her death, the Nevada Health Department recommended that the machines not be used by those younger than 18 years of age, under 5 feet tall, or with specific medical conditions. Cryotherapy is still not approved or regulated by the FDA for the treatment of any medical issues. You do it at your own risk (thus the waiver releasing the spas of any legal liability).

Despite Chelsea Ake-Salvacion’s death and a few other people claiming frostbite (easy to do if your gloves or socks are the tiniest bit wet), cryotherapy continues to gain popularity among both health nuts and the Hollywood elite alike. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and other pro-athletes swear by the benefits, and Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo even bought a cryotherapy chamber for his home. He’s super hot, so it MUST work a little, right?

When I went to find the “hard science” to back up any of cryotherapy’s claims, I was shocked. There really wasn’t any. There’s a lot of contradictory research with small sample sizes and mixed results. In fact, scientists have yet to find that cold therapies help that much with anything. Joseph Costello, an exercise physiologist at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, actually said, “There’s more and more evidence coming out that the inflammation that cold reduces is actually imperative for the recovery and healing process.” Oh.

Extreme cold, like cold water immersion, can increase the level of dopamine in your brain which means, that’s right, pleasure time! And whenever you’re exposed to cold, your body burns fat to keep you warm and restore homeostasis (which is surely where cryotherapy bases its ludicrous claims of burning up to 800 calories per session and speeding up metabolism).

So what about immune effects? Okay, there are studies that show that cold water immersion, not cryotherapy specifically, can stimulate the immune system slightly. In fact, water actually conducts heat better than air, which means an ice water bath would move heat away from your body and cool you down faster than an ice air bath which is basically what cryo is.

In other words, prevailing science says cryotherapy is overpriced baloney, with multiple sources claiming there’s no evidence to substantiate its plethora of miraculous claims.

However, none of this matters when it comes to junkies looking for health cures or the newest sober rush. A program friend with six years clean who suffers from chronic fatigue and Epstein-Barr does cryo six to seven times a week for “health benefits.”

“I’m a beast and I love the edge. I broke my record in my first 10 days after a double session. Now my body temperature hovers around zero down to -15 degrees F when I get out.” He claims to be the record holder of the coldest body temperature after exiting a chamber at -27 degrees F, a dubious claim at best.

“If you used the way you did,” he continued, “I’m sure you will come out of a session and want to do it again right away.”

Another sober friend, four years clean, tried it once and couldn’t wait to do it again. “I felt like I was rolling, about to peak,” he told me.

Uh-huh. We junkies are a funky bunch.

So in the end, unless you’re a pro athlete with a muscle injury and don’t have 12 minutes to sit in an ice bath before you’re back in the game, save your money. Seems my papa was right all along. He’d always say the same thing, no matter what bad thing happened to me—stubbed toe or broken heart:

“Put some ice on it, Ames. Put some ice on it.”

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