Keep it cool
What do Alicia Keys, Daniel Craig, Cristiano Ronaldo and Jennifer Aniston have in common? Besides being rich and famous, these four celebrities are also proponents of cryo-chamber treatments, a kind of cryotherapy.
Essentially, cryotherapy consists of any kind of cold treatment be it putting a bag of frozen peas on an injury, taking an ice cold bath, or spraying oneself with bio-freeze after a particularly grueling workout.
Cold medicine itself has a long history and has been used for many purposes from slowing metabolics during trauma surgery to killing cancer cells to even freezing off warts. Cryo-chamber therapy, on the other hand, was first developed in Japan before arriving in Europe in the Eighties before slowly gaining popularity in the rest of the world, especially over the past few years.
Before jumping into the technicalities of cryotherapy, it’s worth mentioning that choosing to intentionally (and possibly quite literally) freeze your butt off is not just a flight of fancy. In fact, it is said to hold a staggering amount of benefits. In Poland, it is largely used to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, sleep disorders, and even depression.
More commonly, it is used to reduce pain and inflammation, tighten skin, and encourage collagen production. It helps in muscle recovery as well and it is also said that in one session, an average person can burn around 400-500 calories. An inactive or sedentary individual can even burn up to 800 calories due to the slower metabolism.
The cold causes vasoconstriction which in turn reduces blood flow in the extremities and thus reduces inflammation around soft-tissue injuries, stopping them from progressing. The release of adrenaline relieves pain and also creates a euphoric feeling which leaves people feeling better after the treatment.
There are two types of options in this treatment, either partial or whole body. The former largely features a contraption akin to a standing tanning bed. You step in, the door closes, you strip down and stand for three minutes as aerosalised liquid nitrogen surrounds your body, from the neck down only. Your head stays above as inhaling the gas is hazardous and can lead to a strict KO. The latter, one which we tried, consists of stepping into a chamber room filled with electronically-cooled air, therefore safer in comparison.
In fact, a 2013 study conducted in France compared the two methods and concluded that Whole Body Cooling (WBC) is far more effective than Partial Body Cooling (PBC) in activating the nervous system.
Ice, Ice Baby
Our experience with the WBC took place at Iwona Specialty Clinic in Dubai, regarded as being the first chamber of its kind to open in the emirate. It can fit up to four people in there but up to two seems more comfortable.
Before the session, our vitals were checked and our medical history taken to ensure that our body is not likely to react negatively to the stimulus.
After the paperwork was taken care of, and because we were first-timers, we were asked to change into a cotton tee and shorts, slip into some knee-length socks and then some crocs. This was followed by some elbow warmers, a pair of thick-ish gloves, a fuzzy headband and then a surgical mask. I half-expected a camera to whip out and snap an image of us followed by a resounding yell of "You've been punked!"
Generally, the less clothing you wear, the better, but as the chamber is at a whopping -166F (-110C), first-timers are given some degree of protection in case they accidentally brush against any of the walls inside and learn how to identify the term 'freezer burn' from first-hand experience.
While we were being given the low-down by the professional at hand, we were standing at room temperature and were then asked to step into the chamber which is split in two. The first room is at -76F(-60C) where you are to stand for at least 30 seconds before progressing into the next room. It is recommended to keep moving to have some semblance of warmth but also to be careful not to touch anything, even yourself, so no rubbing hands or arms.
Feel the 'Freezer' Burn
If you feel any ache, there is no need to fret as this supposedly means that the therapy is working although I was skeptical. Coincidentally, I did have a strained neck that day and did feel it exacerbate before completely fading but I chalked that up to actually losing feel in my extremities as usually happens in cold temperatures.
Due to the constricted space inside, the instructions to not touch anything, and the advice to keep moving, my colleague and I ended up looking like we were locked in a fight neither of us wanted to be a part of as we hopped around in a circle, facing each other, and vehemently shaking our fists in the air. A definite entertainment for the clinic professionals monitoring us from the outside.
After exiting, you are put through a post-treatment workout where you either jump on a stationary assault bike or do some plyometric exercises for a few minutes to promote the flow of the now-enriched blood through your body. The entire experience takes about 15 minutes and leaves you feeling refreshed (due to the adrenaline) and also hungry, probably due to the caloric burn. This treatment is not recommended for people who are pregnant or those who suffer from heart conditions.
While cryotherapy has received the stamp of approval from several doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists worldwide, there are mixed conclusions about their practicality and usefulness.
Studies have shown short-term benefits, which I agree with as my aforementioned neck pain gradually returned in a few hours, making the treatment akin to a $82 Tylenol Extra. Although, it is definitely worth noting that like any treatment, it can’t be taken as a one-and-done method meaning that a continuous approach is a given if one wishes to see long-term benefits.
Though, long-term effects are also something that has not been properly studied in depth. A lot of its information is based more on extrapolation rather than cold, hard facts, such as its calorie-burning claim. There are definitely contradictory results out there and just as many people who swear by cryotherapy as those who have sworn off it.
Ultimately, when it comes to easing pain and aiding muscle recovery in sports, it holds the same after-effects as any cold treatment, be it an ice bath or an ice pack. In the end, people would rather stand two to three minutes stark naked in a chamber than suffer the penetrative cold of cold water immersion.
Cryotherapy, then, is probably worth a try after you’ve exhausted other, more economically-feasible avenues. Until then, keep a weather eye on the research and a healthy dose of skepticism.
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