A growing number of businesses are offering whole body cryotherapy, telling customers it can treat everything from asthma and Alzheimer's right through to insomnia and arthritis. The US Food and Drug Administration is finally speaking out on the practice, saying there's no evidence to back the many purported benefits — and that it's actually quite dangerous. Image: Shutterstock
Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) is the practice of "super-cooling" the body for therapeutic purposes. These chambers are starting to pop up in a number of gyms, spas and wellness centres, and they're being lauded by the likes of Demi Lovato, Dr Oz (of course) and Tony Robbins (uh, of course).
Above: Dr Oz touting the benefits of Cryotherapy.
WBC is frequently used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and other physical ailments, but it's also being used to treat conditions like depression, anxiety and even obesity. Some professional athletes are giving it a try, saying that it helps with recovery.
The trouble is, there's virtually no evidence to back any of these purported benefits. In light of this, the US Food and Drug Administration is advising people to be aware of these unsubstantiated claims, telling them to talk to their doctor before they expose their naked skin to near-liquid nitrogen temperatures.
"Given a growing interest from consumers in whole body cryotherapy, the FDA has informally reviewed the medical literature available on this subject," said Aron Yustein, a medical officer with the FDA. "We found very little evidence about its safety or effectiveness in treating the conditions for which it is being promoted."
French soccer star Franck Ribery sits in a cryotherapy chamber during training for the Euro 2012 soccer championships. (AP Photo/Franck Fife, Pool)
During WBC, individuals are exposed to liquid nitrogen-cooled vapours that reach ultra-low temperatures ranging from -130 to -185C. Clients, stripped down to their undies, typically sit or stand in a cylinder-shaped chamber for about two to four minutes. The cold air supposedly boosts cellular survival and decreases inflammation, but it's not entirely clear what these frigid temperatures are actually doing to the body.
"We simply don't know," said FDA scientific reviewer Anna Ghambaryan. "At this time, there's insufficient publicly available information to help us answer these questions."
On the flip side, the FDA is pretty clear on the potential risks posed by WBC. It says the biggest hazard is asphyxiation, which can happen when the liquid nitrogen cools the vapour. What's more, the addition of nitrogen vapours in a closed room decreases the total amount of oxygen, which can lead to oxygen deficiency (hypoxia) and cause unconsciousness. Other risks include frostbite, burns and eye injuries.
And these aren't idle fears. Late last year, a 24-year-old woman named Chelsea Patricia Ake-Salvacion was found dead, and "rock solid frozen", in a cryochamber in Nevada. The woman, who worked at the facility, entered into the full body chamber alone and without supervision. The coroner's report claimed Ake-Salvacion died within minutes.
The FDA is not saying that people should avoid WBC outright. "If you decide to try WBC, know that the FDA has not cleared or approved any of these devices for medical treatment of any specific medical conditions," the FDA said in a statement, adding it is "also concerned that patients who opt for WBC treatment — especially in place of treatment options with established safety and effectiveness — may experience a lack of improvement or a worsening of their medical conditions."