Photograph By Hayden Stinebaugh
Strip down to boxers or a bra and underwear and don a pair of thick, wool socks, plastic shoes, cotton glove liners, and boxing gloves. Then, step into an open-top chamber and shut the door. Dry nitrogen vapor swirls and temperatures reach as low as -302 degrees Fahrenheit. Shiver and step out after 3 minutes.
This type of therapy is called cryotherapy, which is said to have been first developed in Japan in the 1970s to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Yes, that’s correct, it’s a type of “therapy.”
General cryotherapy is used as an alternative to ice baths (unlike localized cryotherapy, which is designed to treat pains in specific areas of the body). In the United States, the therapy has started to gain traction in the past decade, especially in cities such as New York City and Los Angeles. Now, cryotherapy centers have been popping up over the past few years in metro Detroit, in cities such as Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Royal Oak, and Detroit, among others.
Yvette Tabangay-Nafso and A.J. Nafso, owners of Cryo Balance in downtown Birmingham, say they initially discovered cryotherapy when A.J. was searching for a natural therapy for his mother, who has arthritis and ligament injuries. However, the Nafsos — who are both practicing dentists in Bloomfield Hills — fell in love with the treatment after trying it in New York City.
“We had increased energy and our mood was fantastic,” Nafso says. “I walk around New York (normally) with no less than three Motrin 600 throughout the day. (But after doing cryotherapy treatments), I never needed a Motrin or Aleve — I had more energy, and I felt much better than I ever felt taking those anti-inflammatory medications.”
They eventually decided to open up a center in Birmingham because “we know it works, we loved it, and we wanted to do (cryotherapy) more often,” Tabangay-Nafso says.
Many local athletes have publicly endorsed cryotherapy as an alternative to ice baths after a workout, including players from the Detroit Pistons, Detroit Red Wings, and Detroit Lions.
Detroit Pistons player Darrun Hilliard, 22, first started using cryotherapy about a year ago as an alternative to ice baths.
“When I heard it was only three minutes, I quickly jumped on that because I didn’t have to get in the ColdTub (a brand that manufactures cold-water baths) for 20 minutes and it was just fast,” Hilliard says. “The cryo chamber made me feel better and I was able to recover faster. As you start to move and especially your next workout or whatever you plan on doing physically, you definitely feel a little bit better and more refreshed.”
The Nafsos say reasons for using cryotherapy treatments range from trying to find a way to reduce back pain after a car accident to helping with depression. Others are looking for supplemental ways to maintain their health and wellness.
Localized cryotherapy (above) treats pains in specific areas of the body while general cryotherapy entails submerging the whole body into a chamber that gets as cold as -302 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ray Jihad, 47, a Rochester Hills resident and owner of Target Sports in Royal Oak, says he has pains in his knees, elbows, and lower back, and has been looking for a way to recover after his workouts. Jihad does cryotherapy treatments at Cryo Balance three to five times per week after exercising.
“I feel so alive the minute I’m done,” Jihad says. “When I get out, I feel very energized. I’m usually sluggish and tired all day.”
Jihad says after a cryotherapy treatment he has no residual aches and pains from his workout. He also says he believes the treatments have speeded up his metabolism, allowing him to increase his portion sizes compared to when he didn’t do cryotherapy treatments.
Reasons for using cryotherapy treatments range from trying to find a way to reduce back pain after a car accident to helping with depression.
Many health professionals and experts caution that cryotherapy is a relatively new therapy, and there haven’t been enough long-term studies to back many of its widespread claims. For example, one 14-subject study published in the Journal of Physiological Sciences in 2013 looked into whether whole-body cryotherapy is an effective tool to reduce low-grade inflammation in obese men. The researchers found that 10 sessions of cryotherapy reduced inflammation, as did another study with rheumatoid arthritis patients, and they say it might support diets aimed at reducing inflammation.
The authors note that their findings require further investigation due to the small number of participants, and they say long-term effects of cryotherapy should be examined.
Dr. Kerstyn Zalesin, a weight loss medicine specialist at Beaumont Health, says cryotherapy, which is not Food and Drug Administration-approved at the moment, functions as a type of experimental or alternative treatment because “there are no really good quality, large studies to really support any claims definitively. Additionally, there’s not long-term data to support claims about this being superior for weight loss or training,” she says.
However, she says science can support the argument that cryotherapy burns calories.
“For you to maintain your body temperature, it is actually work for your body to do so,” Zalesin says. “If you’re exposed to the cold, you may shiver or stiffen your muscles and your body has to burn extra calories just to keep yourself warm and maintain your core body temperature. This speaks to why if you spend the day outside, you sense that hunger when you come in.”
She says there are claims that whole-body cryotherapy can create a similar effect to going outside in the cold, creating a cooling effect to the superficial layers of the body and causing blood to move to the user’s core to preserve their vital organs.
“In order to rewarm the tissues a couple of minutes later when the treatment is completed, it takes more of a metabolic load to do so,” Zalesin says. “So in essence, it’s a calorie-burning exercise.”
But, she says, there has been no long-term data looking into whether cryotherapy users’ bodies become accustomed to the therapy, thus reducing its effectiveness, or whether users offset the effects by eating more to compensate for the calories they’ve burned during a treatment.
Yet, many cryotherapy users swear by the extreme cold therapy, saying it helps improve their moods, energy levels, muscle soreness, and aches and pains.
While the long-term data is not available to support many of its claims, people who can afford cryotherapy treatments, which can cost at least $50 a session, say it’s an efficient way to improve their physical and mental health.