I recently got naked and froze my butt off in a small room with a total stranger. I wasn’t at the doctor’s office, and I hadn’t infiltrated a nudist subreddit. I was trying my first cryotherapy session.
Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) utilizes electricity or liquid nitrogen to rapidly cool the body. Proponents claim it can reduce inflammation, fight disease, and even boost your mood. As such, cryotherapy has become popular among athletes hoping to recover more effectively.
But does scientific and empirical evidence support this fitness trend? We decided to see for ourselves.
What is Cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy, or “cold therapy,” has long been reported to relieve pain and inflammation. If you’ve ever iced an injury, then you’ve technically tried it.
But what if your whole body feels beat up? Newer cryotherapy technologies treat large areas of the body in just minutes.
Cryochambers are fully enclosed rooms that are cooled by either nitrogen or electricity. Cryosaunas, by contrast, circulate liquid nitrogen around the body in a small booth. The head pokes out of a small hole at the top, which feels a bit turtle-like in my experience.
This turtlehead distinction could be important. A 2017 meta-analysis argues that cryosaunas aren’t WBC, because the head is not exposed to cold. The overwhelming majority of cryotherapy studies have looked at WBC conducted in cryochambers, which, in theory, could activate different molecules and cause different outcomes.
In other words, you may not experience the same benefits seen in studies if your head is poking out. However, we simply won’t know without more high-quality studies.
How Does it Feel?
Have you ever wondered what it’d be like to spend three minutes naked in the coldest place on Earth? Save the airfare. Temperatures in the cryosauna reach a frosty -130 to -250 degrees Fahrenheit, which is up to 106 degrees colder than the coldest temperature ever recorded on our planet.
Don’t be intimidated, though. The session goes by quickly, thanks to a cryotherapy attendant who keeps you chatting and reminds you to keep moving. Between talking and dancing, the cold was pretty tolerable. Surprisingly, so was the nudity. The cryosauna is designed in such a way that, with a well-choreographed robe pass, my attendant saw only my head.
It took some time for me to warm up afterward, and I felt jittery and tired the rest of the day, but the next day I woke up free from nagging hip pain for the first time in weeks. I’ll never know if it was a medical miracle or the power of placebo, but I’ll give it another whirl when I’m feeling sore.
Does it Work?
Cryotherapy has gained some traction in sports medicine. That said, we still don’t know enough to say how helpful it is for recovery.
In one small study, 11 experienced male runners completed a simulated 48-minute trail run followed immediately by a three-minute WBC session. They repeated WBC every 24 hours for three days, with daily blood draws to measure inflammation.
The same men completed a second simulated trail run with daily blood draws, using passive recovery (rest days) instead of WBC. Compared to passive recovery, blood markers of inflammation were significantly lower 24 hours after WBC.
In another small study, male trail runners reported feeling stronger, less tired, and less sore after three daily WBC sessions. Similar findings have been observed in other sports, although not all studies have reached the same conclusions.
To some extent, it may come down to consistency. No best practices have been established for WBC in sports, but providers generally recommend frequent treatments for best results.
“The closer you get your sessions together, the more benefits you’ll receive,” said Rebekah Elsasser of Celsius Cryotherapy in Ladue, Missouri.
Elsasser adds that cryotherapy can also boost the effects of other types of bodywork, like massage.
“A WBC session before a massage allows the client to tolerate stretching and deep tissue work, as blood flow to muscles and tissue is increased. This increase delivers both oxygen and endorphins that help a client’s muscles have better perfusion and flexibility. The combination has allowed for quicker and longer-lasting results,” she said.
While this sounds promising, there’s no scientific guarantee that cryotherapy will work for you. It may be worth a try for some athletes, but time will tell if this trend cools down.
Is It Safe?
Let’s just let the cat out of the bag: cryotherapy is not FDA approved at this time.
This is due, in part, to a lack of consistent evidence that whole body cryotherapy (WBC) is useful in treating medical conditions. However, injuries have been reported with WBC. Notably, Olympic sprinter Justin Gatlin suffered frostbite in 2011, and a Nevada spa employee died during a self-administered session in 2015.
Still want to try it? Find a facility you trust and that has safeguards in place.
Your cryotherapy provider should always review your medical history before treatment. Cryotherapy may be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions, including (but not limited to) heart disease, poor circulation, hypertension, blood clots, and claustrophobia. It’s also not appropriate for minors or pregnant women.
You’ll be instructed to dry your skin and remove any lotion prior to treatment. You’ll also want to remove any jewelry and wear the provided socks, slippers, and gloves. A face mask should be worn in cryochambers.
Though potentially awkward, an attendant should monitor you throughout your treatment. This attendant will check temperature and oxygen levels and watch for any negative side effects.
Finally, keep in mind that you can always stop treatment if you’re uncomfortable. Pay attention to your body and put cryotherapy on ice if you have concerns.
Author: Kimberly Yawitz is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Images: Courtesy of Celsius Cryotherapy in Ladue, Missouri.