A first-timer tests the effects of whole-body cryotherapy

hole-body cryotherapy is a three-minute plunge into a chamber cooled to 100 degrees below the coldest temperature recorded on Earth. It’s basically like rubbing an ice pack against an aching joint, but for your whole body.

Cryotherapy (cryo means “cold) is used mostly by athletes looking to soothe aching muscles and joints, but I’ve agreed to try it—at The Spine Spa, on the 2nd floor of Kirkwood Fitness & Racquetball Clubs—and write about it for Out & About.

In preparation for the plunge, I’m handed a purple, knee-length robe and oversized tiger-striped slippers. As I waddle out of the dressing room in a getup that might be charitably called eccentric, I’m a little nervous but pretend not to be.

My guide for this venture into subarctic conditions is Brooke Van Teyens, a chiropractic assistant and cryochamber technician. She begins by asking if I’d like the “full experience.” Last chance to wuss out, she doesn’t quite say.

I’m told afterward that newcomers often ease into it with slightly lower temperatures or time limits, but it’s the full experience for me.

I step inside the cryochamber, take off my robe and hand it over the chamber’s wall to Van Teyens, leaving me wearing socks, slippers, underwear and gloves.

The temperature plummets as gaseous nitrogen fills the chamber. Nitrogen is used in cryotherapy because it turns from liquid to gas—it boils, in other words, though it’s odd to think of sub-zero boiling—at about -300 degrees F.

The gas warms up as it meets my skin, which is why the chamber itself generally doesn’t drop below about -230 degrees F. That’s still colder than anywhere on Mars.

To ease me into it, Van Teyens is making small talk in the manner of a doctor distracting a nervous child. She knows something that all journalists also know: People love talking about themselves, so asking about them is the most effective small talk.

How Do I Get Out?

The first minute is no problem—even on the coldest days, the residual heat we carry from warm places fends off the chill briefly — though I soon start shivering.

“How do I get out?” I ask in what I hope is a casual tone. The chamber doesn’t actually lock, she says; it’s held together by magnets, meaning I could easily open it.

The chamber also has a safety feature that requires the operator to tap a glowing prompt every 30 seconds or it will stop automatically. It’s one of the reasons Mike Francis, the chiropractor who operates this cryotherapy service, chose this model.

After three minutes—more or less the limit for cryotherapy—I re-robe and step out. The cold doesn’t penetrate deeply (just a millimeter or so, I’m told) and I’m warmed up within a minute.

Afterward, I debrief with Francis. People call him Dr. Mike.

The premise of whole-body cryotherapy is that cold temperature shocks the body, triggering a response to what it perceives as dangerous cold. Blood rushes to the body’s core, to the vital organs. Afterward, the oxygenated blood rushes back out.

Dr. Mike says that’s the source of the sense of pleasure that people feel when they step out of the cryotherapy chamber.

Though athletes are the main market for cryotherapy, it also has adherents in those seeking to reduce overall inflammation, which Dr. Mike says is the root of all illness. (It sounds like a bombastic claim, especially given that inflammation is a natural immune system response, but researchers are increasingly tying inflammation to cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases). These are people who already watch what they eat. They avoid inflammation-triggering fried foods, grains and processed sugars, Dr. Mike says. I nod, my blank expression concealing the tinge of guilt I feel for the turkey, egg and cheese croissant I devoured on the way here.

He credits cryotherapy with a number of other benefits, including improved mood, better-looking skin and weight loss. None of these other claims has strong research evidence, and the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved cryotherapy to treat any medical condition.

But I’m trying it out to see for myself whether I notice a difference. I feel pleasantly tingly afterward, if not particularly euphoric. I don’t have any aches to melt away. I actually had a headache later, which could have either been unrelated or due to my carelessness in not drinking plenty of water afterward, as Dr. Mike suggested.

Mr. Delaware Is a Customer

As noted, the therapy is mostly for athletes, and I don’t qualify, unless you count tromping through a park or chasing a soccer ball across a field now and then. So, I ask Dr. Mike to put me in touch with an athlete/customer. Dan Hoffman, an amateur bodybuilder who was named Mr. Delaware in 2018, fits that bill.

Hoffman has been seeing Dr. Mike for about three years to treat a pinched spinal nerve, and he was one of the first to try out the cryotherapy chamber last fall. He wanted to see if it could help soothe the minor aches and pains that follow a weightlifting session.

Hoffman says that only three minutes in the cryochamber can cut down on the pain inflicted by even the heaviest of “leg days,” when he does lower-body exercises.

“I get out of there and honestly, I feel great,” he tells me. “The soreness is there but doesn’t linger for 24 or 48 hours.”

Hoffman works as an engineer, and I ask him about the evidence supporting cryotherapy. He says he did some research, and decided he wouldn’t continue it if it didn’t work for him. But it did, so he comes back about twice a month.

He recommends trying it a few times to see if it cuts down on post-workout pain.

I’m still skeptical of some of these claims, but the basic notion—that the cold might help athletes reduce inflammation—makes sense to me. For what it’s worth.

At $25 each, the treatments are certainly affordable. Appointments are preferred. Call 240-3602 or check The Spine Spa website: optimalperformancechiro.com/spine-spa.

Dan Linehan
Dan Linehan is a Minnesota native who moved to Delaware in 2016 when his wife got a job offer here. After an 11-year career as a newspaper reporter and a one-year stint as a high school science teacher, Dan started freelance writing full time in 2017. He enjoys soccer, reading and hanging out with his two cats, Balrog and Buster.