Plenty of people suffer from inflammation, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that whole-body cryotherapy—submersion of one’s entire body (except for the head) in freezing liquid nitrogen mist—is gaining traction for athletes and non-athletes alike.
I’ve got arthritis and capsulitis (extreme swelling of the joint capsules) in both of my feet. I’ve been icing multiple times a day for months, which means I submerge my feet in ice water and then pull them out to encourage a rush of oxygenated blood to the areas that need to heal. When a friend mentioned how much cryotherapy has helped her painful knees, I decided to give it a go. After all, my feet were used to the icy cold.
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My appointment took place on a hot and humid day in late June. Sweat dripped down my temples as I got in the car. I kept telling myself the cold would be welcome on a summer day. Little did I know just how cold it would actually get.
The concept of harnessing the healing powers of the cold dates back to ancient Egypt. Starting from the 1700s, doctors used hydrotherapy and cryotherapy for all sorts of treatments, from migraines to surgery.
After I checked in, the cryo-operator had me pick out neoprene mittens and booties, similar to those I wore while scuba diving in Iceland (also super-cold). Then he showed me into a small changing room where I would step into a robe.
“Be sure to dry off completely,” the operator warned. “You don’t want any moisture on you.” I suddenly worried about whether my armpits were damp or if sweat still clung to the hair at the nape of my neck. I dabbed at these parts with my towel. Moisture freezes, so you want to avoid that.
“Do you have any piercings?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Ears, nose, and belly button.”
“Ears and nose are fine,” he said, “but you’ll want to cover up the belly button piercing with this.” He handed me a roll of masking tape. I found myself wondering just how cold the metal in my belly could possibly get and how helpful the tape would even be.
I stripped down to my underwear and put on the robe, booties, and mittens. Then I approached the chamber and a massive nitrogen tank. The chamber looked like how you’d imagine a shower stall on an airplane—neck-high and barely big enough to move inside.
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After he shut me in the chamber (my head stuck out the top, which is good for people who are claustrophobic), I handed the man my robe. He stood outside of the chamber to control the settings. At first it felt strange to have him in the room—I was naked except for my underwear and the neoprene, after all. But it was helpful to talk to him during the process. He told me he uses cryotherapy every day and loves it.
I told him I was ready—and then he opened the valve of the tank. Liquid nitrogen mist whooshed in and filled the chamber. For a few seconds an instinctive fear-like reaction kicked in, like being in a room suddenly filling with smoke. But with my head over the edge of the stall I could breathe just fine. It actually all looked pretty cool, like I was standing in the middle of dry ice.
It works like this: Cryotherapy cools down the patient’s skin by exposing it to -160 to -250F liquid nitrogen mist for two-five minutes, typically. When the skin comes into contact with such cold, it sends messages to the brain to initiate survival mode, pulling blood from the extremities to the body’s center, where it gets oxygen and other nutrients. (FYI: Frostbite affects the hands and feet first, so this is why patients wear mittens and booties in the chamber.)
When patients step out of the chamber, the newly-fortified blood rushes through the body, which is good for the organs, cells, and skin. Oh, and the process also sends the body’s metabolism into overdrive; each treatment reportedly burns around 500 calories.
Cryotherapy cools down the patient’s skin by exposing it to -160 to -250F liquid nitrogen mist for two-five minutes, typically. When the skin comes into contact with such cold, it sends messages to the brain to initiate survival mode.
But it’s hard to think about calories or the benefits when you’re in the chamber. The cold is shocking, and I had goosebumps immediately. The man had me turn in slow circles and said I could cross my hands over my chest if I needed extra warmth. I managed to keep my hands at my sides for the entire three minutes, and couldn’t talk for the last minute or so because my teeth were chattering. And then I was done. The man closed the valve, opened the door, and just like that, the mist evaporated and I stepped out. I was back on the road inside of 15 minutes.
The concept of harnessing the healing powers of the cold dates back to ancient Egypt. Starting from the 1700s, doctors used hydrotherapy and cryotherapy for all sorts of treatments, from migraines to surgery. Treatments using cold progressed from water and ice to solidified carbon dioxide to liquid oxygen and finally to liquid nitrogen in the 1950s, which was used to kill cancer cells on contact. Cryotherapy is also used to freeze off warts!
In the late 1970s, a doctor in Japan developed whole-body cryotherapy to mitigate the pain and inflammation of rheumatic diseases. Today, it’s widely used for post-game recovery by athletes. Even day spas are offering the treatment to boost skin regeneration and metabolism. As cryotherapy becomes more accessible, people are using it for everything from anxiety to weight loss to decreasing the pain associated with Crohn’s disease.
It’s hard to determine whether cryotherapy will decrease my inflammation or help me manage my pain—I should go more regularly for a few weeks to assess that. The issue? Cryotherapy is a bit pricey