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The Dangers of Cryotherapy

It sounds otherworldly and promises big benefits, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has four words for you when it comes to whole-body cryotherapy: “Don’t believe the hype.”

The treatment is being marketed directly to consumers for everything from rheumatoid arthritis pain to weight loss to improvement in athletic performance.

The 2- to 4-minute “super-cooling” session is also touted to help depression, asthma, insomnia, Alzheimer's disease, fibromyalgia, migraines, multiple sclerosis, stress, anxiety, osteoarthritis, and chronic pain, along with an ability to boost circulation, increase metabolism, and improve post-workout soreness. Much of the whole-body cryotherapy publicity is likely due to the top sports figures and celebrities who are singing the fad’s praises.

But the FDA is making it clear that no evidence shows that whole-body cryotherapy does any of those things and hasn’t approved the therapy to treat those conditions.

According to the FDA, whole-body cryotherapy sessions—available at “cryotherapy spas”—involve exposing your body to vapors that range in temperature from –200° F to –300° F. Those vapors, often in the form of liquid nitrogen, are delivered in either an upright, cylinder-shaped, open-top tank just big enough to fit one person from the shoulders down or an enclosed chamber that fits several people and exposes your entire body to freezing temperatures. Some centers charge as much as $90 for a 3-minute session—and recommend as many as 20 sessions over just a few weeks.

Experts know little about how whole-body cryotherapy might affect the body, though the risks are clear: a loss of consciousness or asphyxiation resulting from diminished oxygen levels in the chamber and low temperature hazards—namely, frostbite, burns, and eye injuries. Moreover, for those people who decide to skip conventional treatment in favor of whole-body cryotherapy, a lack of improvement in or a worsening of any health condition may occur.

The treatment proved fatal in 2015 for a 24-year-old woman in Nevada. An employee at a cryotherapy spa, she apparently entered the chamber after hours and was found dead there the next morning. The coroner ruled her death an accident from lack of oxygen but couldn’t determine whether it was a result of too much liquid nitrogen delivered or if she tried to bend down to pick up a dropped cell phone and was overcome.

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