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Is Cryotherapy a Miraculous Cure-All or a Dangerous Health Fad?

Cryotherapy, the practice of standing or laying in a freezing chamber for up to three minutes, is becoming increasingly popular for its numerous, unproven health benefits. But are these alleged benefits worth the risk?

by Brian McManus
Oct 28 2015, 7:29pm

Rejuvenice cryotherapy center

The act of stripping down naked save for a pair of gloves and socks and stepping into a freezing chamber cooled by nitrous-gas to temperatures of up to (down to?) minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit for one-and-a-half to three minutes may sound novel, or perhaps even downright insane, but that's part of cryotherapy's appeal. Its proponents believe it has the ability to heal aching muscles or aid in quicker recovery times after hardcore workouts. Fair enough: Ice baths and various other methods of cooling the body after vigorous activity have been employed for centuries.

But some ascribe an almost mythical quality to cryotherapy, and think its benefits go far beyond what the tried-and-true icepacks of yore had to offer—it helps burn calories, strengthens the immune system, gets rid of cellulite, and can slow aging to a grinding halt, they believe. There's a very "Keith Richards takes blood transfusions from teens to stay alive" vibe to it all. As far as newfangled, unregulated, and scientifically unsupported therapies go, it rivals the sensory deprivation tank.

That long list of alleged benefits, the reverence of those who practice it, and a gaggle of high-profile celebrity endorsements (Lindsay Lohan, Daniel Craig, Yoko Ono) have given cryotherapy a very visible boost in popularity of late. The alternative is now fully mainstream, and cryo business owners like Joanna Fryben of New York City's KryoLife are opening new locations due to increased demand. "NYC's hottest beauty trend is literally freezing yourself," as this New York Post story puts it. As such, chances are you've stumbled upon one of the thousands of YouTube videos documenting people giving cryo a shot, saw former respected doctor turned slave-to-content Mahmet Oz endorse it on his TV show, watched a noxious morning show segment on it, or had a friend of a friend sing its virtues in the last few months.

One of cyro's growing number of fans was Chelsea Ake-Salvacion, 24, of Las Vegas, Nevada. She'd fallen hard for the practice, so much so she began working at a spa called Rejuvenice that offered the treatment in nearby Henderson. A Hawaiian who'd moved to the desert town with a boyfriend a few years back, she'd decided to stay when he headed back to the island, excited about her career as a manager at the spa, her uncle, Albert Ake, told the New York Times.

Last week, October 19, Ake-Salvacion's body was discovered inside a cryotherapy tank at Rejuvenice, where she'd stayed after her shift to give herself a session. She was frozen "rock-hard solid," according to her uncle. A Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department investigation has ruled out foul play, but the Rejuvenice location has been shut down. Co-workers of Ake-Salvacion have told the Times she went into the cryo chamber when no one else was at the spa to assist, something they say is never supposed to happen. "Cryotherapy is safe treatment, it's definitely safe, but it's not to be used alone," Elise Iverson, a colleague and friend, told the Times. "It was misused."

Along with her death comes new scrutiny of the unregulated cryotherapy industry and questions about the safety of the practice.

Cryotherapy was developed in Japan in 1978 to help treat arthritis. Before its recent explosion and "Ain't this crazy!"-tinged mentions on shows like The View, it was mostly used by hardcore athletes, UFC fighter-types, and NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin. It has many faithful believers, but Ake-Salvacion's death has raised the question of risks beyond the frost bite, skin burn, and irritations warned of in the standard waiver of liability given out at all cryotherapy clinics.

Doctors remain divided on cryo's effectiveness and safety. They're also not keen on saying much about it, as I discovered while writing this story, perhaps out of fear they'll either be perceived as behind the curve on this cutting edge technology or look like a quack for endorsing it. Cryotherapy is not FDA-approved, and though complications of the treatment are low, people with certain medical conditions like deep vein thrombosis and high blood pressure are likely wise to keep their distance from the treatment.

Read on Motherboard: I Went to the Mardi Gras of Cryonics to Look for the Meaning of Life


"The studies have shown that it has not been harmful in high level athletes who are healthy—there's been no studies looking at this in an average person or anybody with any diseases or illnesses," Dr. Jennifer Solomon told Foxnews.com in May of this year. Dr. Solomon is a board-certified physiatrist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. She also serves as team physician for the United States Tennis Association. "In my opinion, if somebody has risks for heart disease or cardiac disease or a family history of stroke, I still think that this could cause a huge stress on the body, which can lead to potential dangerous issues."

The stress she speaks of is caused by the freezing temperatures, which send the body into a survival mode hyperstate, causing blood flow to the vital organs to increase oxygen and nutrients.

"The whole idea of hot and cold is removing the toxins and allowing blood that doesn't have those toxins or those inflammatory components into that area," Dr. Solomon told Fox News. "So their claim of having health benefits or skin benefits to that is the washing away of the bad [blood] and renewing it with good, vital blood."

One of cryotherapy's biggest proponents is comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan, who has been espousing the treatment's benefits for quite some time (in fact, he goes for a session in this recent Rolling Stone profile). He first learned of the practice from Jiu-Jitsu champion Eddie Bravo, who is a steadfast believer.

In October of last year Rogan described the experience to guest Keith Weber on JRE episode 559 thus: "It's ridiculously good for inflammation, ridiculously good for any aches or pains you might have like muscle soreness because your body freaks the fuck out. It feels this 250 degrees below zero and it just goes 'HO-LEE SHIT' and it pulls all the blood from the surface of your skin down to its core," he said, echoing Dr. Solomon's professional take. "Then three minutes later when you're out—it's enough time so you're not dying of hypothermia—your body goes 'Oh, we're OK and—WHOOSH—it all goes rushing out. And it's been explained to me in very technical, scientific terms, all the different mechanisms that are going on in the body that are protecting you. It's way better than these ice baths that people have been taking for a long time. It's amazing. You've got to try it."

Or, as one young professional puts it in the New York Post story, "I left feeling like I drank four Red Bulls and was a Prozac-ed-out Disney employee."

Rogan's frequent endorsements on his podcast are very convincing, and the number of world-class athletes and plebs who attest to the virtues of cryotherapy suggest there's certainly some there there. But the practice remains untested and unproven, and the stress it places on the body means those interested in turning themselves into temporary ice pops should check with a doctor before submitting themselves to the chamber.

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