Up until a few months ago, Roxy Toy had been living with almost constant pain in her back and hips. She’d endured it for 15 years, the result of active duty in the Army.
The 42-year-old lieutenant colonel stationed at Moffett Field said she tried “everything” from cortisone shots to acupuncture, none of which offered her more than a few hours’ relief.
Now the Sunnyvale woman can go for days pain-free after trying something that initially sounded extreme: subjecting her body to flash freezing for two to three minutes at a time.
Once or twice a week, she goes to the Peninsula Wellness Centre in Mountain View to stand neck-high in a closetlike tank while a fog of liquid nitrogen gas billows around her underwear-clad body. The fog takes the temperature in the tank down to 230 to 250 degrees below zero Fahrenheit — colder than any natural place on Earth.
The technique is called whole-body cryotherapy, and yes, it may be coming to a spa, sports medicine clinic or wellness center near you.
Depending on whom you talk to, cryotherapy is either the latest fad, boasting a range of yet-to-be proven benefits — while boosting the interests of a largely unregulated industry — or, it’s a cutting-edge therapy that can genuinely help people such as Toy resume active, normal lives. It has also become de rigueur for a growing number of elite athletes — LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and, most recently, members of the Green Bay Packers. These pros, as well as celebrities such as Daniel Craig prepping for his latest James Bond outing, use it to reduce the aches and inflammation caused by tough workouts so they can recover quickly, exercise harder and boost performance.
“This is a supercharged ice bath,” says Landan Laurusaitis, a personal trainer, former college football lineman, and co-founder of the recently opened Performist cryotherapy studio in Palo Alto. “I’ve done a lot of ice baths, and they work wonders on your recovery, but it’s not pleasant. This only takes three minutes. It basically gives you all the impact of an ice bath in a fraction of the time.”
Laurusaitis adds that hard-driving tech workers have begun to drop in at The Performist, looking for an endorphin rush from a quick chill in the studio’s $75,000 tank. That boost, they say, allows them to keep working late into the evening.
Toy was skeptical of the treatment’s purported benefits and worried that getting into the tank would be as much of a shock to her system as jumping into the Arctic Ocean.
But, she says, “I would walk through fire if it would take away the pain.”
As it turned out, her treatment left her feeling briefly chilled, but it was tolerable, as if she stepped outside on a cold winter morning. She also noticed tingling in the areas of her body affected by pain, but the tingling quickly went away — as did the pain.
“It was amazing,” she says. “I felt immediately better.”
She has since returned for about 40 treatments. The downside is that the treatments, ranging from $40 to $65, depending on the package, aren’t covered by insurance. While she wishes the therapy were not so expensive, she thinks it’s worth it.
The concept of cryotherapy is nothing new. Applying cold packs to injured joints or muscles to reduce blood flow, swelling and inflammation has long been standard practice among medical practitioners. And, as Laurusaitis said, soaking in ice baths after intense exercise is routine among professional and college athletes.
One of Laurusaitis’ personal training clients, Mountain View-reared professional volleyball player Diane Copenhagen, 29, recently tried the cryotherapy tank for the first time and liked it much better than a 20- to 30-minute soak in an ice bath. “This is an easy and fast way to help your body recover and recuperate,” Copenhagen says.
The first cryotherapy tank was built in Japan for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. The treatment spread to Europe in the 1980s and the United States in the past decade. While most users these days are professional and recreational athletes, the treatment also is used to treat symptoms of arthritis, autoimmune diseases, multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders and depression.
Chiropractor Chris Watson, owner of the Peninsula Wellness Centre, also touts cryotherapy’s potential for improving skin tone and helping weight loss; a single session reportedly burns anywhere from 500 to 800 calories.
The medical and scientific communities are far more reserved in their assessments, saying liquid nitrogen has been used medically for procedures such as wart removal. But so far, there is little research to show that cryotherapy offers physiological benefits, either for weight loss or for reducing muscle soreness and recovery time for athletic training.
“I remember how oxygen rooms were popping up a few years ago and a lot of athletes were using them, but the studies never really panned out,” says Michael Fredericson, a professor of orthopedic surgery and expert in sports medicine at Stanford University Medical Center. “I don’t know if cryotherapy will end up the same way, with the therapy getting going commercially before there is really any science behind it. I’m not saying it’s bad, but we don’t really know.”
Joseph Costello, senior research associate in the department of sport and exercise science at the University of Portsmouth in England and one of the world’s leading researchers on cryotherapy, suggests a placebo effect might be in play for some people. If anything, he says, cryotherapy offers benefits similar to cooling off skin and muscle with ice packs or ice baths, which don’t cost as much.
And given that cryotherapy exposes people to extreme temperatures, he said it’s imperative for more research to be done on its long-term safety.
Indeed, safety concerns arose after a 24-year-old Las Vegas spa employee was found dead in a cryotherapy chamber in October. Reports say she was using the nitrogen-filling machine alone after the center closed and died of asphyxia due to a lack of oxygen.
Cryotherapy is not regulated by the FDA or by most states, including California. The woman’s death prompted Nevada health authorities to issue safety guidelines, which recommend that pregnant women or people with certain health conditions — including high blood pressure or a history of strokes and seizures — avoid it and that centers make sure employees are properly trained in using the machines.
Watson, of the Wellness Centre, and Stephen Evans, another co-founder of The Performist, say client safety is their No. 1 concern. New clients fill out health questionnaires and have their blood pressure checked, they say. And in contrast to the apparent practices in the Las Vegas case, an employee is always present when someone uses their chambers, they say. Of the about 1,000 people who have visited the Wellness Centre over the past year, Watson says, “We haven’t had one incident.”
To prevent potential frostbite, both centers require people to don thermal socks and gloves to protect feet and hands. They also make sure people don’t go in with moist skin. Back in 2011, American sprinter Justin Gatlin said he suffered frostbite while entering a chamber wearing socks sweaty from a previous workout, according to the New York Times.
Concerns about frostbite and inconclusive information on the treatment’s athletic benefits made Michael Mendenhall, 53, of Palo Alto, wary at first. But he gave it a try because he wants to compete as a master swimmer and needs to keep up a rigorous training schedule. After a week of daily sessions, he has yet to experience frostbite. Moreover, he’s noticed a marked decrease in recovery time from the workouts, from one or two days to several hours. “I just feel really good, more alert,” he says.
While Evans agrees that more research needs to be done, he says there’s enough evidence to show “this isn’t a quack thing.”
He himself hits the chamber daily to improve his training for marathons and CrossFit competitions.
“We have people in here every day,” he says, “and we have yet to find anyone who doesn’t get anything out of it.”