Freeze Yourself to Health

Everyday people are trying whole-body cyrotherapy, super-cooling their bodies at spas mimicking a recovery regimen of the pros. But does it work?


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Client Greg Crawford inside the chamber.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

First you strip down to your undies. Next you pull on wooly socks and gloves, a pair of thick slippers, and a spa robe for women or shorts for men. Then you step into a bone-chilling chamber exposing your body to sub-zero temperatures, -160 degrees Fahrenheit and lower. For three minutes you turn around slowly as the cold, dry vapor (liquid nitrogen converted into gas) in the chamber cools your skin by 30 to 50 degrees and blood rushes to your core. This is full-body cryotherapy—a spa treatment touted to reduce inflammation, soothe sore muscles and joints, increase energy levels, reduce stress, boost your mood, and more.

On a recent Friday, Inger Harris, a critical care nurse at Highland Hospital, stopped by Redux Cryotherapy in downtown Alameda, on her lunch break. This was her fourth weekly dose of the super-cold treatment. She has painful inflammation in her knees and ankles. “I work out for over two hours, six to seven days a week, cardio and weights. This helps. I’m feeling less pain,” said Harris. And with that, she was back in her scrubs, out the door, and off to work.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

Noel Morales, owner of Redux Cryotherapy.

After Harris, four buff guys, members of the Oakland Raiders who practice nearby, took their turns in the freezing tank. Professional athletes were among the first to embrace full-body cryotherapy to speed up recovery. Redux owner Noel Morales said he sees about 25 of the Raiders two to three times a week during the season. But the majority of Morales’ business is walk-ins, regular folks who like to exercise and who have pain or injuries. Morales opened the Redux spa in summer 2016 and now treats 60 clients a week.

Next up was Jaime Cabrales. He saw a sign for the spa outside and thought he would give cryotherapy a try. “I work out every day, weights, and I get sore,” said the 61-year old.

As he stood in the chamber, turning slowly, with only his head exposed, Morales walked him through it: “Halfway through, hang in there.” Cabrales gritted his teeth. “Another 20 seconds.” When the three minutes were up, Cabrales stepped out of the chamber, took a couple of deep breaths, and walked around slowly swinging his arms. “I feel like a popsicle,” he said. Will he be back for more? “I’ll see how it goes; see how I feel tomorrow.”

Localized cold therapy, like icing with ice packs or cold water immersion, is commonly used to reduce pain and swelling after injury and surgery, said Dr. Tony Truong, a sports medicine specialist with Kaiser Permanente in Oakland. But the clinical evidence for the benefits of whole-body cryotherapy is lacking, according to Truong. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved whole-body cryotherapy for treating any medical conditions, and a recent report from the agency cited the lack of proof to support the claimed benefits. And there are contraindications to the treatment to be aware of, like heart conditions, uncontrolled high blood pressure, pregnancy, circulatory conditions like Raynaud’s disease, and others.

Still the desire to get an edge and to feel better faster plus the convenience (just three minutes), and the novelty of it pull in people. Each session costs between $40 and $65.

Michael Garrett opened Reboot Float & Cryotherapy Spa in Rockridge in January. His new spa averages 20 cryotherapy clients a day, and a handful of the Golden State Warriors are regulars. “We are essentially a restorative gym. This is where you come to recover,” said Garrett. In addition to six float pods (clients “float” in a warm water salt tank to promote relaxation and reduce stress), Garrett’s spa has a whole-body cryotherapy unit called The Arctic and a smaller unit with a wand for localized therapy called The Penguin. Because Garrett’s equipment works with a heat transfer system, a client can put his entire head and face in the cryosauna. The wand targets an injured area or sore joint, such as in the lower back or an elbow, and can be used for facials, too. The idea is that the cryotherapy increases collagen, which rejuvenates the skin and reduces wrinkles.

Oaklander Derrek Peel, 38, has been routinely doing cryotherapy since May. Trim and tanned, Peel is a bicyclist, out on the road two to three times a week, sometimes riding up to 100 miles in a day. “The cryo is good for my lower back and legs that get sore from riding, and I like the tingly feeling that my skin gets inside the chamber,” he said. “And I do cryo around finals time to wake me up, get me focused,” added Peel, who studies Chinese medicine at the Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley. Peel has turned his mother and father, 71 and 78 years old, on to cryotherapy as well. “Dad struggles with rheumatoid arthritis in his knee and shoulder. He said it gave him some pain relief for four or five hours. And Mom, she likes to beautify. She did the facial.”

Peel stood by the cryosauna as the unit cooled down to a brisk -202 degrees and pulled on a cotton mask to protect his nose and mouth from the frigid air. He’s a “cryo pro” and does his cold therapy at the lowest temperature the spa offers. As the session came to a close, the spa technician counted down “3, 2, 1,” and opened the door. Frosty, white air poured out, and as Peel emerged from the cold haze with his skin tinged slightly red and wearing a big smile, he belted out, “I am alive.”

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