After delivering Cleveland’s first professional sports championship in 52 years, LeBron James stood in a large cylinder for three minutes so his body could be exposed to temperatures as low as -300. The frigid temps, 159 degrees from absolute zero, are reached through nitrogen-cooled vapors that are the centerpiece of whole body cryotherapy. It is a nouveau approach that counts many athletes among its clients, with James being the most famous. The players consider the therapy a way to relieve aches and to speed body recovery.
Normally by the time I get around to writing about an untraditional tactic or technique, there are a series of failed double blind studies in its wake, or perhaps a refusal by proponents to engage such studies or other meaningful research. With whole body cryotherapy, however, not much investigation has been done and properly-designed trials are lacking. There is insufficient research on the effects the therapy has on blood pressure, heart rate, metabolism, and so forth.
This has not stopped proponents from claiming victory over rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, asthma, Alzheimer’s, anxiety, chronic pain, depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, migraines, and obesity. They have taken potential physiological effects and abruptly extrapolated them into all manner of health benefits.
The FDA warns there is no evidence to support any of this, and that the therapy can be dangerous. The biggest hazard is asphyxiation, which can happen when the liquid nitrogen cools the vapor. Also, this introduction of nitrogen into a sealed enclosure decreases oxygen, which can lead to hypoxia and unconsciousness. Other risks include frostbite, burns, and eye injuries.
Dr. Steven Novella has noted that the technique might justify preliminary studies, but that proponents have leapfrogged several more obstacles to call this a wonder therapy. For example, cryohealthcare.com uses anecdotal evidence to bolster support for its assertion that WBC effectively treats stress, insomnia, rheumatism, muscle tension, joint pain, and skin conditions.
Those at cancerdefeated.com are even less morally constrained, and claim WBC will treat cancer. The hocus pocus is described thusly: “While in the pod, your skin temperature drops so fast, your body thinks it’s in a state of hypothermia. Because of that, blood drains out of your extremities and into your core, which is the body’s natural response to keep you alive by saving your vital organs. This reaction to hypothermia nitrifies and oxidizes your blood before it’s released back into the rest of your body. The process actually elevates your red blood cell count as part of a natural defense mechanism.”
Accompanying this are the hackneyed references to detoxification, immune system boosters, and improved circulation, all of Novella calls “the trifecta of alternative medicine bogus claims.”
Again, Novella stresses that the therapy could prove to have value. He explained, “Reductions in muscle and skin tissue temperature after WBC exposure may stimulate cutaneous receptors and excite the sympathetic adrenergic fibers, causing constriction of local arterioles and venules.”
This means that WBC “may be effective in relieving soreness or muscle pain. Cryotherapy is a reasonably plausible treatment for various conditions, but requires further study before the net health effects can be sorted out for specific indications.”
The problem is that providers aren’t waiting for the results of any study. They are jumping to conclusions with a vertical leap that would put to shame their most famous client.