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After Nevada death, researcher explains controversial process of cryotherapy

Many athletes have started to use cryotherapy in their athletic routines for tissue cooling.
FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images
Many athletes have started to use cryotherapy in their athletic routines for tissue cooling.

Humans have been using cold therapy for years to help with things like muscle inflammation and soreness.

Humans have been using cold therapy for years to help with things like muscle inflammation and soreness for years.

Whole-body cryotherapy is one of the newer and more advanced methods of cold therapy, and many popular athletes and even some Hollywood stars have started using it as a treatment. Many beauty salons offer cryotherapy treatment, claiming it can help speed recovery and reduce soreness.

Last week, news broke of a bizarre and tragic death at a Las Vegas beauty salon, where employees arriving on Tuesday morning discovered 24-year-old Chelsea Ake-Salvacion dead.

She had been using one of the salon’s cryotherapy chambers while closing up the shop alone, and family members say she “froze to death” after the chamber she was using didn’t turn off. An official cause of death hasn’t been released by the coroner’s office and while police don’t suspect foul play, her death remains under investigation.

So, what is whole-body cryotherapy and how does it work? We asked Joe Costello, a researcher who studies sport and exercise science at the University of Portsmouth in Southern England. He's been studying cryotherapy for nearly the last decade.

How long has cryotherapy been around and why is it so popular?

"Use of cold therapy has been reported as far back as ancient Greece. Recently, whole-body cryotherapy is increasingly being used in athletic recovery. I suppose the treatment was first introduced in the late 1970s and what you see is a spread of the treatment across Western Europe, and only in the last couple of years has it reached the U.S. and Australia, so it’s probably a lot more popular in Europe than it is in the States or Australia."

"Elite and professional athletes are using it as a method of recovery after intense exercise or competition. Right now in the U.K., we’ve got the Rugby World Cup underway, and several of the teams involved in that tournament have used the treatment. We’ve also seen reports of famous soccer players like Cristiano Ronaldo using the treatment, and also professional golfers….the list is really endless. What happens with this is that there’s a culture for recreational athletes to emulate their more professional or elite peers, and also use the treatment. The last couple years, we’ve seen enormous growth in the use of whole-body cryotherapy in sports medicine." 

What kind of equipment is necessary for whole-body cryotherapy?

“There are two typical methods used: one using liquid nitrogen and one using refrigerated, cool air. Some of the simpler ones are just like a tank, and some are larger like the size of a regular sauna that you’d have in a gym or a beauty salon. The larger chambers can fit two to three people inside, and the entire body is exposed. What you see in typical salons is what we call partial-body cryotherapy, where the head, neck, and shoulders are not exposed."

How does whole-body cryotherapy work?

"What typically happens is that after exercise or competition, cryotherapy is advocated to be used within 24 hours of exercise. You typically go into these chambers dressed only in swimming gear, along with gloves, socks, and headbands to protect your ears. Individuals are exposed to temperatures of anywhere below -110 degrees Celsius, which is about -166 degrees Fahrenheit. To put this in perspective, the coldest temperature that’s ever been recorded on Earth in Antarctica was only -89.2 degrees Celsius. These temperatures are over 50 degrees Celsius and in some cases a lot colder than the coldest temperature experienced on Earth."

How does the process actually aid the body in recovery?

"This is the question. Currently, there’s very little sound evidence to support its use for athletic recovery. So one potential mechanism or way which we believe it could work is to do with reductions in muscle metabolism which are caused after the blood flow is reduced to the working muscles, and all of this is potentially going to reduce inflammation which causes that muscle soreness. Have you ever gone for a run after not doing anything for six weeks or so, and the next day or the day after and anywhere up to a weak later you have those sore muscles? That’s what we call DOMS – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness – which is, in effect, related to the inflammation caused by the exercise."

How does whole-body cryotherapy compare to an ice bath?

"That was one of my very first questions when I undertook my doctoral degree. What we did was we immersed people in cold water and we compared the cooling capabilities, so the effects of cold water and whole-body cryotherapy on muscle, skin, and core temperature. What we actually found is that the reductions in temperature were very, very similar between the two treatments."

Couldn't positive effects from whole-body cryotherapy just be the placebo effect?

"I think one of the biggest factors in sports performance that’s often overlooked is the power of the placebo effect. There’s a multitude of evidence saying that the placebo effect, if you believe something is good for you, it actually is good for you. It actually changes your psychology, your physiology, and can actually improve performance."

Guest:

Joe Costello, Ph.D., senior research associate in the Department of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Portsmouth in England and co-author of the study “Whole-body cryotherapy: empirical evidence and theoretical perspectives” (National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2014)

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