Cryotherapy: Wonder cure or medical myth? We froze ourselves in the name of good health

As the opening chords of Rage Against The Machine’s Killing in the Name play over the speakers, I watch my nearly-naked boyfriend step into a glass-fronted chamber cooled to -91°C. He’s wearing a pair of North Face boots, padded mittens, a surgical mask, a fleece headband to cover his ears and a pair of black shorts to cover his modesty.

The idea is definitely not to make him look sexy. The idea is to expose as much of his flesh as possible to the subantarctic temperatures and induce a primal “flight or fight” response, thus sending a flood of endorphins and adrenaline around his shivering, goose-pimpled body. To give a little perspective, the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was -94.7°C.

The digital clock on the opposite wall counts down from three minutes.

I watch as he alternates between standing like an action figure in a box and doing squats to warm himself up. The music, which he’d chosen beforehand, seems to give him something to focus on other than the snow forming on his eyelashes.

The word “cryotherapy” conjures up visions of Futurama

For many people, the word “cryotherapy” conjures up visions of Futurama or getting their warts frozen off. What my partner is experiencing is whole-body cryotherapy (WBC), which has been gaining popularity among top athletes as a way to combat muscle soreness – US basketball player LeBron James is a fan – and is predicted to be the next fashionable trend in wellness.

111CRYO, which offers sessions in Harrods and Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge, is the first of its kind in London. Opened in 2016 by Dr Yannis Alexandrides, a certified plastic surgeon based at Harley Street, 111CRYO uses electricity rather than the more traditional nitrogen gas to cool the chamber. I’m told this is because nitrogen gas sinks to the bottom and gives an uneven cooling, whereas electric cooling gives a more consistent whole-body experience.

On 111CRYO’s social media, the company poses questions such as: “If freezing prolongs fruit life and maintain them fresh, imagine what it does to you body/skin?” [sic] On the face of it, this seems like a leading question that oversimplifies a complex topic. After all, freezing also leads to frostbite.

“As a cosmetic surgeon, my interest is [in] not only the aesthetics of the body, but how it functions,” explains Alexandrides. “I’m always searching for ways to keep my patients feeling their best, and this is why cryotherapy piqued my interest; it addresses issues of the mind and body for a positive effect head to toe.

“From the boost to circulation, to the release of powerful hormones – ‘feel good’ endorphins and ‘energising’ adrenaline – to the anti-inflammatory response, cryotherapy is an experience which uplifts the spirits and improves the form. I use it regularly to stay alert and focused, as well as invigorated and strong.”

It certainly sounds like a panacea, but is it for everyone? Well, no. The reason it isn’t me standing in that walk-in freezer is because I’m on beta-blockers. The 111CRYO team had advised me that as “everything gets absorbed into the system a lot faster following the treatment, it would be best to postpone this until you’re off the medication”. Hence why I roped in a volunteer.

As my partner had undergone knee surgery recently, and is due for more in a few months, we had to make sure that popping him into an ice box wasn’t going to adversely affect him. “Cryotherapy can be used as a rehabilitative tool,” the therapist explains, after reviewing his medical history. However, it’s always best to consult with your doctor beforehand. There is also a detailed medical questionnaire to complete once you arrive at the clinic.

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So, does it work?

If, as with many of 111CRYO’s clients, you’re after a pick-me-up when you’re suffering from jet lag or a hangover, then the answer would be yes. It’s the mother of all cold showers. But if you’re looking for any sort of help with muscle strains and back pain, the medical jury is still out.

“There’s currently insufficient evidence to support its beneficial claims”

“At this point in time, I wouldn’t recommend whole-body cryotherapy to my patients,” says University of Nottingham Medical School’s Dr Anneka Crawley. “Although there may be some theoretical merit to it, there’s currently insufficient evidence to support its beneficial claims.”

This is a view echoed by a 2015 review by the Cochrane Bone, Joint and Muscle Trauma Group, which concluded that: “The currently available evidence is insufficient to support the use of WBC for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise in adults. Furthermore, the best prescription of WBC and its safety are not known.”

On the topic of safety, there has been one reported death linked to cryotherapy. In 2015, a 24-year-old spa worker was found dead in a chamber. She didn’t freeze to death, but instead suffocated in the chamber filled with liquid nitrogen.

And, as a recent report estimates that more than $65 million of cryochambers are expected to be sold in Europe by the end of 2026, it seems vital more research be done into the safety of these machines. “Further high-quality, well-reported research in this area is required and must provide detailed reporting of adverse events,” concluded the Cochrane review.

But back to Harvey Nics, where Rage Against The Machine has finally stopped killing in the name. My partner pushes the glass door open and I feel a gust of icy air around my ankles. I shiver, giving silent thanks to my doctor for prescribing me a get-out-of-jail-free card.

“That was really good,” he says, with a grin on his face and a light dusting of frost on his arm hairs. “I’d definitely do that again.”

The therapist had advised against drinking alcohol after treatment because it has a tendency to go straight to your head, but my boyfriend sounds like he’s already two pints down.

“I feel pumped!” He adds, rather unnecessarily I feel.

The therapist shows him the changing room, and talks him through the products he should apply to treat his post-freeze skin, which is looking annoyingly healthy and flushed with a euphoric glow. I can’t help but think…perhaps I should have given it a go.

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