It sounds like the one of the world’s worst double dares: Strip down and spend three entire minutes subjecting your body to air that is 160° colder than the coldest place on Earth. Think you could handle it? Believe it or not, thousands of people happily pay for this treatment on a regular basis, in search of a speedy and effective way to reduce inflammation, improve circulation and perhaps even promote weight loss.
Whole-body cryotherapy has been recently adopted as a recovery technique by a lineup of elite sports stars and celebrities. World record-holding sprinter Usain Bolt, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and five-division world-champion boxer Floyd Mayweather are cryotherapy devotees, along with a long roster of NFL and NBA teams. But is this trend also suitable for mere mortals who simply want a convenient and affordable recovery treatment?
Invented in Japan in 1978, cryotherapy was only recently brought to the United States. In 2009, Eric Rauscher, a former commercial real-estate developer who now runs Texas-based CryoUSA, introduced Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to cryotherapy. The Mavs later credited the treatment for giving their seasoned players an edge that helped them win the 2011 NBA title — despite being the oldest team in the league that year.
So what’s the scoop on this miracle treatment? Some compare it to a super-charged ice bath without having to get wet or sit still for an extended period of time. The subject, wearing just underwear and protective gear for their extremities, stands in a cylindrical chamber that surrounds them from shoulder to ankle. Air cooled by liquid nitrogen is then circulated around the body, bringing the temperature down to anywhere from -166° to -280° Fahrenheit.
When the cold hits the skin, it sends the body into fight-or-flight mode, causing an adrenaline rush that releases hormones and endorphins that help repair the body and give a feeling of euphoria. In this state, the body pushes more enzymes, nutrients and oxygen into the blood in preparation for any potential tissue or organ damage, so when the three minutes are up, the enriched blood circulates throughout the body and helps to accelerate cell renewal. Additionally, the treatment purportedly burns up to 800 calories in three minutes in the body’s fervent attempt to restore homeostasis. Cryotherapy claims to decrease muscle recovery time, enhance athletic performance, increase energy levels, elevate mood, improve sleep and boost collagen production, and it has even been used to treat chronic headaches, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
“It changes my whole day, “ says Nick Baida, co-owner of GLACÉ Cryotherapy in Medford, Oregon. “A session in the morning wakes me up, and I get so much mental clarity after the treatment. If I do it at night, I sleep so much better.” Baida, who also spends five days a week training for competitive racquetball, uses daily sessions to keep swelling at bay and recover from the diving, swinging and high-impact motions of his sport.
Like most physical therapies, it isn’t an instant fix, though some clients have felt its effects after just one session. Sessions range in price from $30 for first-timers at Restore Cryotherapy in Austin to $90 for a drop-in session at Kryolife in New York City, with special monthly membership pricing available at most spas. “We recommend that people try it three days in a row before forming an opinion,” says Baida. “Everyone responds differently, but regular sessions are ideal.”
While high-performing athletes are often encouraged to try the most cutting-edge tools for training and recovery, like this one, the medical community remains divided on cryotherapy.
“Cryotherapy chambers may have a role similar to ice in initial control of pain and inflammation from injuries, and for recovery after hard training, but I haven’t recommended them to patients yet,” says Dr. Kristin Wingfield of Post Street Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine in San Francisco. “The popularity has preceded the science behind them. Maybe these treatments will prove to give [an edge] as we study more about how they work and what they can do for the body.” She advises her patients to use more traditional methods, like ice baths and ice compression cuffs, particularly in combination with correction of muscular and mechanical imbalances.
However, Dr. James Andrews, an Alabama-based surgeon who has operated on the likes of Michael Jordan and Brett Favre, has voiced his support of the treatment. In 2015, he was named head of the advisory board for the U.S. manufacturer Impact Cryotherapy, and he continues to research the efficacy of cryosaunas, as compared to traditional rehabilitation techniques.
For now, cryotherapy is rising to the top of the list of favorite recovery therapies for athletes, who prefer three minutes in the chamber versus 15 minutes in a tub of icy water. Like a handful of other NFL players, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson has taken to the cryosauna as he endures preseason training. As he explained in an Instagram post: “Cryotherapy has helped me a lot [with] getting soreness out, allowing my body to recover and get ready to go out.”