Cryotherapy: Is it the coolest thing in sports medicine?
I am standing inside an upright tank, my head sticking out the top. I’m wearing skivvies, booties and glovies. A dry-ice-like fog of liquid nitrogen wafts, swirling under my chin. The temperature is quickly dropping, on its way to a brisk 190 degrees below zero.
Questions arise in my mind. Will I survive the full three minutes, or will I tap out? The tank has an escape door, but what if it freezes shut? Was there a fur-lined cup they forgot to have me put on? I’m trying to keep a stiff (but not frozen) upper lip, I don’t want to become known as the guy who put the “cry” in cryotherapy.
“Here we go,” says Amanda, the cryo tank operator, cheerfully. Gleefully? “Three minutes!”
I wonder if that’s what they said to Ted Williams, whose head is cryogenically frozen in a tank in Arizona. What if my family learned I have a terminal disease, but they don’t want to tell me, and this is their way of tricking me into being frozen until a cure is found?
They say the Kentucky Derby is “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” Cryotherapy, at least the first time, is the most exciting three minutes.
Am I overdramatizing? Probably.
Whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) is increasingly popular and, as far as my research shows, without serious risk. Athletes love the treatments. Warriors Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston get tanked. Several A’s are users, and Jalen Richard, the Raiders’ second-year running back and kick returner, told me that roughly one-third of the Raiders use WBC. The Raiders as a team have open accounts at several Bay Area cryo studios.
WBC is not new. It was developed more than 30 years ago by a Japanese fellow seeking an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. In recent years it has become a full-blown fad in sports, for elite athletes and weekend warriors.
In theory, WBC works like an ice bath, but (some say) better. Three minutes in the cryo tank knocks down inflammation and speeds healing of sore muscles and assorted injuries.
Commercial cryo spas, along with touting the anti-inflammation aspect, claim user benefits such as weight loss, skin and hair rejuvenation, anti-aging, sleep enhancement, metabolism boost and a natural buzz.
These spas claim that rather than freezing your assets off, you will freeze your liabilities off.
Maybe, maybe not. The website Skeptoid said in 2014, “P.T. Barnum would be proud of cryosauna and cryotherapy. Save your money.”
The same website did allow that WBC, in treating sore muscles and inflammation, is at least as effective as ice baths and cold-water swims, albeit more expensive. Are the skeptics too skeptical? The jury is out. The FDA does not endorse or monitor WBC.
But what many athletes believe they find in cryotherapy is a safe, fast and effective treatment for pain and inflammation. If ice bags strapped to knees are effective post-workout treatment, why not a super-duper-cold dry-ice-down quickie for the whole body?
“When I go in now and I’m real sore, there’s definitely a soothing feeling,” said Richard, who gets his cryo on several times a week. “It’s more soothing and relaxing to me than it is freezing cold,” like ice baths are.
Richard can recite the alleged scientific theory behind cryo. Basically, the intense cold tricks your brain into survival mode. Heavier blood flow is directed to the body’s core, sending extra oxygen and nutrients to the brain and other organs. Once you escape — uh, emerge — from the cryo tank, the blood immediately starts returning to the skin and extremities, accelerating (allegedly) cell renewal in the skin.
The process also (allegedly) releases endorphins, boosting your mood.
“When I get out of there,” Richard said, “within a couple of minutes I start feeling great, like I’m brand new all over again.”
For the sake of journalism, I decided to give it a whirl. My wife had been gifted a three-week course by a co-worker, and she passed it along to me. I went nearly every day. I’m probably not a good guinea pig, since I’m not a stressed and battered athlete. I do have rheumatoid arthritis, but it’s controlled by meds, so if cryo did help knock down my RA, I wouldn’t really feel it.
Still, let’s see what it’s all about. By coincidence, for a week before the first treatment, I suffered a bout of sciatica, a nerve condition that made it painful to sit in a car or at a desk.
There is a fear factor — call it trepidation — as I approach my first treatment. Later, Richard told me he was nervous the first time, too. I don’t want to chicken out. When you soak a sore foot or ankle in ice water, the cold can be intense and painful. What if it’s like that over my whole body, and I wimp out?
Inside the storefront studio in Walnut Creek I am instructed to step into a dressing room, strip down to undershorts, put on gloves and rubber booties, and a robe. Then I step into the cryo chamber, hand Amanda my robe, and she cranks up her high-tech ice-cream churn.
It is cold almost instantly. But at no point is there a painful, whimper-inducing shock, like a plunge into a cold ocean. It’s minus-190 or so, but hey, it’s a dry cold.
Amanda engages me in small talk, which definitely helps. Then, “Halfway there, doing OK?”
Diversion is the key. I try to come up with a Cryotherapy All-Star team. I get George “Iceman” Gervin, Red “The Wheaton Iceman” Grange, the old Pirates infielder Gene Freese, Vida Blue, Larry Burright, Stone Cold Steve Austin, J.T. Snow, Cool Papa Bell and Chili Davis.
Every 20 seconds or so Amanda instructs me to take a quarter turn. To get a nice, even blue skin tone, I guess.
The last minute is the coldest, but my overcoming-childish-fear endorphins are kicking in and I know I’ll make it.
“All done,” Amanda says, hitting the kill switch. The robe goes back on, I step out, Amanda shoots a laser at my leg to register skin temp.
Am I now desperate to sprint to the nearest hot tub, sauna or hot-chocolate dispenser? No, once out of the tank, I feel fine. No lingering cold.
What about the cryo-buzz from that endorphin stampede? Again, I’m probably the wrong guy. I don’t get endorphin rushes from exercise. But now I do feel energetic and wide awake.
Driving home, I notice that I am sitting with little discomfort. About a week later the sciatica symptoms are gone. Coincidence? I don’t know.
Within a few days I work up to Level 3, Ted Williams’ neighborhood. Richard told me that he not only does Level 3 but that he also jacks the temp even lower by having the attendant pre-cool the chamber. I did that once, and it got my attention. The last 30 seconds, I went to my Lamaze breathing.
Does cryotherapy work? Is it a miracle cure? Other than the sciatica relief, I seemed to feel a little less creaky in the joints, and a bit energized after the sessions. If not miraculously healed, I felt way cooler.
Story by Scott Ostler – Originally posted at sfchronicle.com
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