Over the past year, cryotherapy has become the latest cool-girl treatment making the rounds. Heck, one of our editors even went all the way to Monte Carlo to try it out. (The technique basically involves hanging out in a sealed chamber that reaches a chilling -160 Fahrenheit.) Athletes have been doing it, begrudgingly, for ages to soothe injuries; decreased inflammation and anti-aging benefits have recently attracted non-athletes, too. If it sounds like torture, that's because it's pretty damn unpleasant. And now it looks like it might be dangerous, too. A recent FDA report declared that the supposed health benefits of whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) are pretty much BS. “Given a growing interest from consumers in whole-body cryotherapy, the FDA has informally reviewed the medical literature available on this subject,” says Aron Yustein, MD, a medical officer in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “We found very little evidence about its safety or effectiveness in treating the conditions for which it is being promoted.” At his New York City office, dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, uses localized cryotherapy to remove precancerous sun spots and warts with liquid nitrogen, but he echoes the FDA's statements on WBC. "While full-body cryotherapy has gained much media attention, there is little data showing that it is truly effective in treating medical conditions or aging skin," he says. The report also says that, contrary to what some assume, the FDA has never signed off on the treatment. "Based on purported health benefits seen in many promotions for cryotherapy spas, consumers may incorrectly believe that the FDA has cleared or approved WBC devices as safe and effective to treat medical conditions,” says Dr. Yustein. “That is not the case." So what are the risks? In October, a 24-year-old aesthetician was found frozen to death inside a cryotherapy chamber. The report notes asphyxiation as another very real risk.
One of the best correlations are tanning beds. We know there are risks, but people still use them.
Houman Danesh, MD
Houman Danesh, MD, who specializes in pain management and rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, adds that if you suffer from breathing, vascular, or heart issues, WBC will worsen your condition. Instead of engaging in the treatment, he recommends taking an old-fashioned route: Pick up a pack of frozen peas or an ice pack, or soak in an ice bath. "What's happening [with WBC] is you're activating your fight-or-flight response, which gives you an adrenaline rush," he says. "It makes you feel awake, and most people claim they feel great when they walk out because they activated that system. But sitting in an ice bath would have the same benefits. It's just not as comfortable." Dr. Danesh notes that although he's glad awareness is increasing, he's not sure much will change. "One of the best correlations are tanning beds," he says. "We know there are risks, but people still use them. For certain individuals it's fine, but you have to be very careful and make sure you use it appropriately at the very least." If you're still intrigued by WBC, consult a doctor beforehand, as the report urges.