Deep Freeze: Does Cryotherapy Really Work?

Deep Freeze: Does Cryotherapy Really Work?
Photo: Pond5

Would you believe that exposing your body temperatures of negative 182 to 292 degrees Fahrenheit is actually more enjoyable than getting hit with a blast of freezing wind on an icy day? That’s what I found out when I visited KryoLife, a New York City cryotherapy center, on a rainy winter day this March.

To test the frigid fad, I stood in a freezing cold chamber for nearly three minutes — clothed in only my underwear, and the wool gloves, socks and clunky white clogs provided to me. The icy temps are said to help you bounce back from workouts more quickly and battle muscle and joint pain, among other claims.

“Muscle recovery is much faster [after cryotherapy] because of increased blood flow and reduced inflammation,” says Joanna Fryben, CEO of KryoLife. Fryben first learned of whole-body cryotherapy in her native Poland, when a doctor recommended it to her mother after knee replacement surgery. Later, after moving to the U.S. and becoming a personal trainer at Equinox, she realized that the benefits of whole-body cryotherapy could be useful to some of her clients, too.

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The teeth-clatteringly cold treatment, which has been used to relieve joint pain and arthritis, reduce inflammation, promote recovery and deliver a rush of endorphins, seemed like a “no-brainer” for her client base, she says. Fryben opened KryoLife in 2014, offering treatments for $90 a session, and says business has been so good they’re in the process of opening a second location later this year.

Entering the Cryotherapy Chamber

Though suspicious of some of cryotherapy’s claims (I’ve read that it burns up to 800 calories a session), I decided it was worth battling the cold. After signing a waiver (pregnant women, people with cardiovascular problems, cold allergies and hypertension should avoid it), I was ushered into a small, spa-like changing room.

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“While I felt refreshed after my one-time cryo treatment, the benefits of a practicing cryotherapy long-term are still murky.”

Sweat is a no-no during cryotherapy — it could lead to hypothermia! — so I was instructed to dry off my entire body with a towel before the treatment began. I was relieved to find that clients stand upright in the cryotherapy chamber. This allowed my head to poke out the top so I could talk to the attendant controlling the machine. (Not to mention, prevent the “Oh god, I’m locked in a freezer” panic attacks.)

No fan of the cold, I braced myself for the 180 seconds of below-polar temps. However, once the liquid nitrogen-chilled air streamed into the chamber, I found that cryo-cold is actually much more tolerable than the freezing blasts I’d be dealing with all winter. The feeling was comparable to experiencing dry heat — the temperature is noticeable, but not as miserable as sticky humidity.

“The concept is very simple: You go into the chamber, and it’s a fight or flight response,” Fryben says. “You start to breathe much faster. It’s a little short-lasting stress on the body.” My breath indeed grew more rapid, and after a minute or so I started feeling a tingling sensation in my limbs. Fryben assured me this was normal. It’s caused by a release of endorphins that occurs throughout your body.

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Just as I was starting to experience an uncontrollable case of the shivers, my time was up and I hopped out of the chamber. Despite skipping my usual coffee that morning, I felt noticeably energized. My skin was flushed and glowing, and I enjoyed something akin to a “runner’s high” upon exiting the chamber.

What Is Cryotherapy?
Photo: Pond5

The Science Behind Cryotherapy

While I felt refreshed after my one-time cryo treatment, the benefits of a practicing cryotherapy long-term are still murky. Cryo enthusiasts will often undergo treatments as often as once a day, to help ease muscle recovery, or to battle conditions like arthritis, says Mary Riley, LMT, ART, of Synergy Sports Therapy in Cleveland, Ohio. “We work with athletes, from weekend warriors all the way up to pro, and we use it a lot for muscle recovery and helping them to be on top of their game,” she says. “We also have a couple rheumatoid arthritis clients who get great benefit from it, and are able to move more freely for the first time in years.”

“Within 10 minutes your body is 100 percent back to normal…Your body can recover quicker and get the exact some results.”

Yet, Dr. Johnny Arnouk, sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City, says there’s still a lot of research to be done. “There needs to be better data to better delineate the risks and benefits of [whole body cryotherapy],” he says. “Parameters for length of time exposed and conditions need to be better marked out as well.”

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He notes that one recent study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports showed that whole-body cryotherapy didn’t make much difference among study participants recovering from hamstring-damaging exercise. But another study, published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, showed improvement among cryo patients suffering from “frozen shoulder,” or adhesive capsulitis. “By improving one’s pain, patients were better able to move the arm and shoulder and make greater strides with their therapy,” Arnouk notes.

A review published in the Journal of Sports Medicine in 2014 analyzed 10 whole-body cryotherapy studies and found that while the treatment seemed to improve subjective recovery and muscle soreness, there was, “little benefit towards functional recovery.” While the study didn’t identify any drawbacks to the treatment, they noted that icing, or ice baths, may offer similar effects, at less cost.

Riley notes that many consider cryotherapy a more pleasant (and less time consuming) alternative to brutally cold ice baths, which can often last up to 20 minutes. “When you get out of an ice bath your muscles and tissues are cold for hours,” Riley says. “Step out of cryotherapy and within 10 minutes your body is 100 percent back to normal. You don’t risk injury from being so cold and your body can recover quicker and get the exact some results.”

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However, both Fryben and Riley acknowledge it’s often difficult to convince people to give cryo a try. After all, freezing cold temperatures don’t hold much appeal — even if only for a short period of time. Yet, both say that clients are often hooked soon after taking the plunge.

“Seeing what it does to people, when I listen to people raving about it, to me that’s convincing enough,” Fryben says. “You see this in their faces, they’re [feeling] stronger.”

Originally published March 30, 2016. Updated March 20, 2017. 

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