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When 30-year-old Matthew Ernst steps out of a cryotherapy chamber, he feels unstoppable. Ernst, who works out six to eight times per week, uses cryotherapy when he’s struggling with an injury and almost always does it before a workout or event.
“I always tell people, ‘I feel like I can jump out of the gym’ right after a session,” Ernst says. “I feel fresh, more energetic, more flexible, and I can definitely feel the endorphins rocking.”
Ernst, a New Yorker who can’t stand ice baths (and says they’re essentially impossible to set up in his small apartment bathtub), can get down with the typical three-minute session no problem. And after? The personal trainer says that’s when he has his best workouts, and the injuries that made him head for the chamber in the first place are no longer bothersome.
Like Ernst, John Hoekman is sold on cryotherapy’s benefits—so sold that he started his own cryotherapy spot in New York City called QuickCryo. “Having always been very active in contact and extreme sports, I beat the crap out of my body and suffer from arthritis and chronic pain,” he says. “Even just engaging in a maintenance exercise regimen had me always reaching for the Advil, and occasionally something stronger. It doesn’t necessarily happen this way for everyone, but after I tried cryo for the first time, I immediately felt significant pain relief and slept like a rock that night for the first time in months. I was hooked, and started down the path shortly thereafter of launching a business focused on proliferating this amazing technology.”
So are Ernst and Hoekman’s experiences something that everyone can expect if they splurge for cryotherapy? And if you’re willing to take the cold plunge, what do you need to know? Let’s break it down.
What Exactly Is Cryotherapy?
Generally speaking, cryotherapy is cold therapy. That can extend from icing your swollen ankle with a bag of frozen vegetables all the way to whole-body cryotherapy, which is trending across Instagram and social media everywhere. In whole-body cryotherapy, clients strip down and step into a chamber that fills with gaseous nitrogen and gets as chilly as −270 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s supposed to go something like this: stand there for up to three minutes (in my experience, dancing around a bit helps the time go by faster) as your skin temperature rapidly lowers to around 32 degrees while your core body temperature drops only slightly, then hop out and reap all sorts of benefits. There is also localized cryotherapy, which uses a handheld wand that directs a steady stream of nitrogen to a specific treatment area.
What Are the Benefits?
The laundry list of benefits that you’ll see touted in some of the most happening locations will include reducing edema, decreasing pain, decreasing muscle soreness, changing localized blood flow, changing core temperature, reducing inflammation, reducing muscle damage, decreasing muscle fatigue, and helping with sleep. Some spa-like centers state that it even burns calories. Sounds dreamy, for sure. But there are few studies that really back up all of these claims.
One study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance says that cryotherapy can be used to reduce pain, but also mentions that cold water immersion is more effective. When it comes to weight loss, cryotherapy by itself is not a magic solution (one small study was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that showed no change in body composition in 14 male subjects), says Dan Giordano, DPT, CSCS, and co-founder of New York City’s Bespoke Treatments. “In the theory of thermogenesis, it may support the process,” he says. “Being cold will force your body to work harder to stay warm, hence burning more calories.” Overall, Giordano isn’t totally gung-ho on the method. “Cryotherapy is a plausible treatment for different types of injuries or conditions, sure,” he says. “But it requires further long-term research with larger samples and randomized control groups before a valid conclusion is made.”
What Should Newbies Take into Account?
- The placebo effect is real. “If you think you are going to feel better, the chances are you probably will,” says Giordano.
- Prepare appropriately. If you’ve been running errands and walk into the cryotherapy chamber with sweat on your body, you’ll regret it. Make sure your skin is entirely dry, remove any body piercings (anything in your head is OK, since that’s out of the chamber), and cover other sensitive areas (think private parts). And don’t worry, you can eat whatever you want before heading in for a treatment.
- Every person is different. “It doesn’t necessarily work the same on all people, every session,” says Hoekman. “For some, like myself, the pain reducing impact is immediate and noticeable, and for others it takes multiple sessions.”
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