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Exploring cryotherapy: The room is 180 degrees below zero, but it sort of feels good

This was colder than the time I skied through a snow storm in the Swiss Alps. It was even colder than when I fell through a sheet of ice into a frozen lake in Colorado.

This was a cold I had never experienced. The kind that makes your teeth chatter. Really. And you shiver beyond control.

That's what I get for wanting to see what it feels like to try cryotherapy, a popular alternative to icing sore muscles, joints and other ailments, and a health fad that seems to be sticking around.

It involves submerging the entire body in sub-zero temperatures or blasting freezing-cold air to a specific area, say your knee. Die-hard fans say it helps with chronic pain and muscle recovery. Some say it's an anti-aging and weight-loss tool.

But would it handle the aches and stiffness in my shoulders and lower back from years of horseback riding?

Jeff Houghtaling, the general manager of U.S. Cryotherapy Tampa, invited me to find out. I met him at the center to get my freeze on.

The sign at 1905 W Kennedy Blvd. isn't hard to see from the road, but the building can be easily missed between the many businesses sandwiched together on this thoroughfare into downtown Tampa.

On first glance, it's clear that Houghtaling is a fit guy. He's an avid practitioner of Brazilian jiu jitsu, and says the majority of clients he sees at U.S. Cryotherapy, which opened in Tampa Bay about a year ago, are athletes. They range from competitive college swimmers from nearby University of Tampa, to the entire University of Alabama football team, which came by for cryotherapy treatments during their stay in Tampa Bay for the national championship game in January.

Houghtaling says he sees a growing number of people with chronic pain giving cryotherapy a try too.

"Cryotherapy speeds up the recovery time after a work out," he said. "It kills inflammation and is great for circulation."

As Houghtaling explains it, a typical session of two to three minutes in negative 180-degree temperatures is almost like a jump start to the body. It forces your system to "naturally combat" soreness and swelling common after a hard workout, or even pain in specific joints.

"You feel great after it," he said. "That short burst of cold air feels good. It releases hormones like serotonin."

Maybe you've seen the skinny, tube-like chambers with fog billowing out the top that some cyrotherapy centers use for treatments. Those chambers use nitrogen to keep the air cold.

At U.S. Cryotherapy, participants walk into a white-walled room not dissimilar to a walk-in freezer in the back of a restaurant, where the entire body can be treated at once. There's no nitrogen involved. Instead, the chamber uses a series of compressors to pump in cold air and keep it cool.

The chamber is bigger than the standard walk-in closet, large enough to easily fit a half-dozen people.

"We do group sessions, like teams who want to be treated together," Houghtaling said.

U.S. Cryotherapy feels like a boutique gym. There are treadmills and workout balls strewn across the lobby. A cooler is stacked full with organic juices. Dressing rooms flank one wall and in the back, behind a couple of large windows, is the cyrotherapy chamber.

I was pretty nervous to give it a try.

I've always been a fairly active person — I run, do yoga and ride horses competitively. I stretch when I feel sore at home or sometimes ice or apply ointments like Icy Hot for temporary relief. Cryotherapy, at first, sounded extreme to me.

But after signing some paperwork that said I didn't have a heart condition and I wasn't pregnant, plus a last-minute pep talk from Houghtaling, I was ready.

Houghtaling recommends exposing as much skin to the cold temperatures as possible to get the full effect of the treatment. So I wore a tank top and gym shorts. The center provides comfy, warm boots, gloves and a headband to keep your extremities warm. I also wore a face mask to keep my nose and mouth warm from my hot exhales.

I was warned not to move around too much during the treatment or else I'd get colder faster. That was tough to do at first, when the tingling of the cold air began to sink into my bare skin, and because U.S. Cryotherapy plays loud, upbeat dance music during the session (if you want it). Since I was a first-timer, my session was supposed to last just two minutes and thirty seconds. But I made it to only one minute before dipping out.

It was so cold I had a hard time keeping my breathing even. It's difficult to acclimate to the thickness of the sub-zero air being pushed into the room. I started to get a headache.

Houghtaling told me that's normal. It takes a little getting used to.

I was shivering when I walked out of the room, but warmed up quickly. And he was right. I felt alert and very much awake, even a little jittery, like I'd had several cups of coffee. I drank a lot of water afterward, but the headache haunted me all day. I didn't notice a big difference in the stiffness of my shoulders or lower back. I'm not sure I'd do a whole-body session again.

I wanted to get another opinion, so I asked Ashley Brewer about her experience. The 32-year-old who lives in Tampa tore labral cartilage in her hip doing interval sprints when she was 28. She's had two hip surgeries and suffered from two herniated discs in her lower back since.

"I've been in chronic pain for over two years," Brewer said. "I was taking prescription anti-inflammatories and Vicodin every day, but my leg would throb at night and the meds made me feel like garbage."

She stumbled on cryotherapy when researching alternatives to pain management. Now she's hooked: Brewer has been going to sessions four to five times a week for the last eight months.

"I'm not going to lie, the first time was miserable. You cannot prepare yourself for how cold it actually is. It takes your breath away," she said, which made me feel better about my experience.

"I hated it, but that night was the first night in two years I was able to fall asleep without the throbbing waking me up," she said. "The next day I felt great and well-rested, so I went again. I started going five times a week and stopped taking all of my meds. My hip still bothers me sometimes, but it's one thousand times better and tolerable. I actually enjoy getting in the chamber now, because I know I will feel great when I leave."

Maybe if I had a specific issue, or worked out harder than I do now, the benefits would outweigh my weeny ability to handle the below-zero temperatures. I'm a native Floridian, after all.

Treatments start at $30 for a single session. They're short, which means it's easy to stop in on your way home from the gym or work. Brewer pays $169 a month for a membership at U.S. Cryotherapy.

There are other businesses in the region that offer cryotherapy too, like Chill Therapy on MacDill Avenue and Physical Chiropractic of Tampa Bay on Dale Mabry Highway.

But as with any kind of untested health treatment, people should be careful when trying something like this, said Dr. Michael Seifert, an assistant professor of sports and internal medicine at the University of Central Florida.

"There's not a whole lot of research on this, and the research that does exist for cryotherapy isn't great," Seifert said. "People have been using ice to make their joints feel better for a long time, so it makes sense that this kind of therapy could be useful after exercise."

The results from those early studies are mixed, he explained. As for cryotherapy being a beauty treatment? Seifert said there's no scientific evidence to prove there are any benefits at all.

"It's hard to say if there are any long-term effects here based on the studies. Most seem to show no real difference after use, but that doesn't mean it's not useful to some people," Seifert said. "It's important to express there are many unknowns about this, which means it can be harmful. We just don't know enough about what those harms could be yet."

A Japanese rheumatologist, Toshima Yamaguchi, is credited with developing cryotherapy in the late 1970s. The trend has been slowly gaining traction ever since, most recently in the U.S. with celebrities, from Floyd Mayweather Jr. to actress Mandy Moore.

In 2015, a 24-year-old Las Vegas woman died in the chamber in a "matter of seconds" after starting a session, the Washington Post and other media outlets reported. She had reportedly been in the machine for more than 10 hours when her body was found. Authorities confirmed that she died from asphyxia caused by low oxygen levels. The woman worked as an aesthetician in the Vegas salon that offered cryotherapy treatments and was an avid user.

While that was likely an isolated case, U.S. Cryotherapy displays a disclaimer on its website, saying it "does not recommend cold therapy as a form of treatment for any illness or disease without direction from your health care professional. The cold therapy products and equipment have not been tested or approved by the FDA or any other government agencies. Use at your own risk."

But a doctor's recommendation isn't required for anyone walking in to give it a try.

"Everyone is looking for the quick fix, but the reality is there's no magic bullet for anything," said Seifert, the UCF professor.

"The super-low temperature is extreme. When professional athletes or celebrities promote this kind of stuff, I can see why there's interest. For an athlete, anything that gives them a 1 to 2 percent edge in recovery is important when their career and money is dependent on their performance. But for the average person, is it worth the risk? People should be hesitant to follow athletes as role models for what's healthy."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

Exploring cryotherapy: The room is 180 degrees below zero, but it sort of feels good 11/13/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 15, 2017 2:22pm]
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