What’s the first thing you do when you feel pain? Likely, your answer leans more toward “take an ibuprofen” than “make my body think it’s freezing to death.” However, the latter may hold the answer to noninvasive pain management.
Cryotherapy treatment was made popular in the 1970s by Japanese doctor Toshima Yamauchi, who used the method to help his patients with rheumatoid arthritis manage their pain and inflammation. It works by guiding the user into an enclosed chamber or sauna and exposing them to temperatures between negative 120 C and negative 160 C via liquid nitrogen vapor for 30 seconds to three minutes.
Sound uncomfortable? Well, it is. But the process is over in a minute, and the body’s reaction is profound. Exposure to these extreme temperatures in a short period of time is thought to generate immense benefits.
“By exposing the body’s outer layer to extreme cold, a reaction in the central nervous system is triggered, causing a natural anti-inflammatory response and the release of endorphins,” explains Stan Kapica, CEO and co-founder of Kryogenesis in New York City. “The result is a flushing of toxins and a surge of energy.”
Kapica notes that during the cryotherapy treatment, your blood becomes highly oxygenated and nutrient-enriched. When you depart the chamber, your vascular system takes several hours to fully reinflate, staying in hypothermia prevention mode and producing mood-elevating endorphins. You’ll feel relaxed and happy, and as your highly oxygenated blood returns, the red blood cells flush the white blood cells (which cause inflammation) from your joints and tissue.
And people are listening: While other countries have embraced cryotherapy for years, it’s a new trend in the USA, one that’s leading to an estimated 5,000 new cryotherapy centers opened by 2018, according to Kapica.
While cryotherapy isn’t yet FDA-approved, there are plenty of success stories to push it along. Brandon Yu, owner of Thrive CryoStudio in Maryland, says one of his favorite stories is a father-daughter case. The daughter was struggling to lose her last 15 pounds of baby weight after giving birth. When diet and exercise weren’t helping, she turned to cryotherapy after a friend recommended it. The results: The weight came off, she started sleeping better and she had more energy during the day.
The woman’s father was so impressed by her story that he began cryotherapy himself for his chronic knee pain, starting at once a week and now jumping into the chamber almost daily.
“His pain subsided quite noticeably,” Yu explains. “In fact, he noted that while he used to have to hold the hand railing to pull himself up stairs, after a couple sessions of cryo, he was ‘running’ up the stairs.”
Sounds great, but stepping into Antarctic temperatures in a bikini must come with some risk, right? According to Kapica, the risks of the therapy are really for those with pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure, a pacemaker or diabetes. Luckily, cryotherapy studios often will take your blood pressure before a treatment to make sure it isn’t too high. Moreover, studios have a specialist monitor patients during the cryotherapy treatment.
Keep in mind that many insurance plans don’t cover cryotherapy treatment, though you may find studios with introductory offers — Thrive CryoStudio has a deal priced at two sessions for $40 for new clients. After that, you’ll likely pay around $60 to $80 per treatment at most studios.
One thing you should understand about cryotherapy is that it’s not a magic — though its benefits can be wide-reaching, from lessening anxiety to improving skin. What does the future hold for cryotherapy treatment? A lot, especially as the therapy is so new in the U.S. Yu believes the first major advancement will be rapid expansion of availability and adoption.
“I see it becoming similar to the tanning craze of the ’90s — readily accessible nationwide,” he says. “In addition, considering its wide-sweeping benefits and trends toward more natural treatments, I expect to see it become more mainstream as part of holistic health plans.”
He also foresees advancement in terms of cryotherapy equipment and chambers. And as the industry continues to grow, you’ll likely see improvements, from safety features to increased treatment menus to options like sensors that read the body’s reaction to the cold.
“While many clients have post-treatment euphoria and report increased energy after only one session, the true benefits take time to go into effect,” Yu says. “It’s important to remember that cryotherapy in itself is not a cure for anything. However, cryotherapy is powerful because it allows the human body to heal, recover and even rejuvenate itself, naturally.”