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Cryotherapy gives new meaning to "chilling out"

Some athletes are now turning down the thermostat to help them recover from their workouts.
October 31, 2013 9:00:51 PM PDT
Some athletes are now turning down the thermostat to help them recover from their workouts. They're using a technology known as full body cryotherapy -- essentially the equivalent of a reverse sauna.

"It's the advanced version of an ice pack or ice bath," says Cryohealthcare co-owner Emilia Kuehne.

Kuehne says the treatment originated in Japan in the 1970s for rheumatoid arthritis. Clients spend two to three minutes chilling in the chamber, which can take their skin temperature down to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. That's cold enough that clients wear protective clothing including gloves, socks, underwear and ear muffs.

"It's almost like standing outside in the snow with shorts and a tank top on," says runner Mackenzie Hill.

The treatments have helped Hill get back to competition after a torn hamstring. Marian Clayton is another believer who says it's allowed her to return to exercise despite arthritis in her knees, back and shoulders.

"I'm able to do my water aerobics, my yoga and Zumba," says Clayton.

In fact, cold has become a hot topic in sports medicine. Some researchers now believe that lowering an athlete's body temperature right after exercise can alleviate inflammation in muscles that have been pushed to their limit, speeding their recovery and lessening the pain often associated with exercise.

But the biology is complicated, and there's debate over how different methods of cooling actually affect the body. Physical therapist Andrew Pritikin has worked with the cryotherapy chamber and says he's seen results.

"We really want to get all that inflammatory processing going and moving along and getting it out, and with this cold, it really does that," says Pritikin.

Others are more cautious. Stanford biologist Craig Heller, Ph.D, helped develop a device called the CoreControl glove that drains heat from the palm of an athlete's hand. He says ice baths used by many professional teams can also accomplish some of the same benefits, because they dissipate heat out of the body. But he's skeptical of the short exposure to cold used in full body cryosauna.

"Just a few minutes in very cold air or gas is not going to do much to lower your body temperature," says Heller.

He does say the reaction to the short burst of cold will undoubtedly produce a shock to the system. Supporters believe the body's reaction to that stimulus alone produces a benefit.

"The cold, the body interprets that as pain. And so in order to counteract the pain, the body will release endorphins," says Pritikin.

According to the company website, the effects of the cryosauna have not been evaluated by the FDA, and the agency does not offer any advice on its use. The cost range per treatment typically runs $25-$ 65, depending on the number of sessions purchased.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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