I Froze My Ass Off in a Tank of Nitrogen Gas to Feel Happier

Cryotherapy is supposedly a wonder treatment. Does it really work?

Feb 23 2015, 7:32pm

The author. Image: Alex Ossola

Like most New Yorkers, I prefer to spend frigid, snowy February mornings trying to distract myself from the cold, nestled under blankets or drinking a hot beverage. But, recently, I instead found myself elbowing my way down the streets of Midtown Manhattan pursuing a cold even more intense than the whipping gusts that drew tears from my eyes. I was headed to the KryoLife clinic to try whole body cryotherapy, mentally prepping myself to immerse my mostly naked body in a tank of nitrogen gas cooled to about -240 degrees Fahrenheit in order to reap the purported health benefits: reduced cellulite, better skin, and more energy, among other miraculous effects.

On a basic level, cryotherapy affects the body just like jumping in cold water: it induces a fight or fl​ight response. Adrenaline starts pumping through the body to make the heart beat faster, suck more air into the lungs, and ramp up blood pressure to keep it circulating through shrunken veins. Pupils dilate. Endorphins quiet your nerves so you don't think about the pain, which makes a person feel euphoric well after the reaction is over.

After the initial reaction that is fairly universal, cold can affect different bodies—even the same body—in many different ways, and scientists still have more questions than answers, according to Naomi​ Collier, a doctorate student in exercise physiology at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom.

But even if we don't know why reactions vary, we have a good idea of what the body's responses can be. "Generally speaking, whole body cryotherapy is a potent anti-inflammatory treatment," said Giu​seppe Banfi, the scientific director of the IRCCS Galeazzi Orthopedic Institute in Milan, Italy who has published sever​al stu​dies on the effects of cryotherapy in athletes.

In the scientific literature, Banfi said, whole body cryotherapy has been shown to decrease the effects of autoimmune diseases, like psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory diseases "with undefined origin" such as fibromyalgia or multiple sclerosis. Cryotherapy can also increase circulation to trea​t acne and is known to improve mood, treating psychological conditions like depression and anxiety.

Screencap of the KryoLife website.

Cryotherapy has been used since the early 1900s on isolated parts of the body to treat lesions and skin problems like warts. But whole body cryotherapy was first used to treat rheumatoid arthritis in Japan in th​e 1970s. Since then it's become increasingly popular and trendy in both in the US and in Europe because "It works, it's natural, it's cheap," Banfi said. Centers have opened up across the US, and athletes are even getting into it, including soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo who has loudly claimed that he is somewhat addicted.

So if cold works wonders, why not just take a cold shower? I asked Joanna Rymaszewska, a professor of psychiatry at Wrocław Medical University in Poland who has done several studies on the psychological effects of cryotherapy. They're similar as far as how they affect the body, but cryotherapy is just much more intense, she said. "We can compare it to eating one piece of chocolate versus eating a whole bar of chocolate—[whole body cryotherapy] is just a much stronger way of reaching the same goal."

So that's why I was going, even though one of my friends thought that I was "psychotic" for doing cryotherapy. I wanted to see if I felt better, in body or mind, after being so ridiculously cold.

KryoLife is the top hit when you Google "cryotherapy in NYC." A single appointment runs you $90, with packages of 10 or monthly passes available for several hundred dollars. I walked down a nondescript hall and sat in a typical waiting room as I filled out forms about my medical history. Have you had a heart attack in the past six months? Severe anemia? Pregnancy? Claustrophobia? No, no, no. According to the form, having any one of these and many other conditions (except claustrophobia) would prevent me from getting the therapy, though Banfi said that no serious adverse effects had ever been described in the literature.

KryoLife's chairman, Eduardo Bohórquez, walked me around the small facility and showed me to a changing room. I donned a starchy white robe over my underwear, put my feet in calf-high white tube socks that then when into clunky white clogs, and slipped on mime-like white gloves. With little fanfare or room for delay, I walked into the next room. It was time to face the cold.

"We call this the evil chamber," Eduardo said, laughing. He had spent the last few minutes cooling it from -224 degrees Fahrenheit to -246 degrees Fahrenheit. The nitrogen gas was overflowing from the top of the chamber, like a beaker in a sci-fi movie, and the rest of the room was chilly. I stepped into the chamber and begrudgingly handed Eduardo my robe over the top as I closed the door. He raised the floor platform so my head was above the gas but my body from the neck down was in it.

All the research I had done before had sort of made me think the cold wouldn't be so bad. "There's no wind, and no humidity, so you don't really feel it," the receptionist told me. That was in line with some studies and testimonials I had read, and it all made some sort of logical sense. And I knew I could handle the cold—I had jumped in the Atlantic Ocean with the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, I had lived through two winters in Vermont and four upstate, I was going to be fine.

Goddamn it was cold. So, so, so fucking cold

Man, was I wrong. Goddamn it was cold. So, so, so fucking cold. I kept my arms close to my torso, so actually my core felt fine. But I really felt it around my knees and thighs, and even though I was stamping my feet, my legs quickly started burning while also going numb.

Eduardo was monitoring the time and temperature from outside the chamber and was casually asking me questions. "Who do you write for? Is it online or in print?" I think I sputtered some sort of incoherent answer. He started counting off how long I had been in there, which didn't help. I felt the skin near my hip flexors contracting so much that I thought it was going to break. In November, when I jumped in the ocean, I knew my limits and could read my body. This was by far the most extreme cold I had ever felt in my life, and I couldn't tell if I was getting into the danger zone.

I suddenly knew I couldn't stay in there any longer. Eduardo lowered the platform and I stepped out, shakily, to put back on my robe. Putting a hand on my thigh was unsettling—it felt like a piece of chicken just taken out of the freezer. It didn't feel like mine.

I had lasted about two minutes and some change in the tank—"Pretty good for your first time," Eduardo said. Most cryotherapy treatments aren't to exceed three minutes because of the risk of chilblain, a skin inflammation caused by cold exposure. Eduardo said he had gone in for five minutes once, but he hadn't really enjoyed it. "I couldn't warm up for the whole rest of the day," he said. Now he goes in for the three minute maximum, but does so every day.

I changed back into my clothes but was still shaky and cold, so I rode the exercise bike that was there to help clients get their circulation back to normal after a session. Chipper, comforting tunes by Juanes and Michel Teló played from the speakers. As I sipped lukewarm water and pedaled slowly, I chatted with another visitor, waiting for her third appointment. She had chronic pain in her knee, so she was always on the hunt for alternative therapies, she said. Before buying the package of 10 sessions, she had done some research, but "nothing super extensive," she said. She was planning to see how her knee felt after doing the 10 sessions to see if she wanted to continue, but she had already been surprised by the mood boost. "It's like hitting the reset button on my brain," she said. When she went in for her session, I heard her laughing with Eduardo through the door.

Later that night, back in my warm apartment, I scanned my body for results. My joints didn't necessarily feel better—if anything they felt a little creakier—but they weren't in pain in the first place. I did get a little of the chilblain near my hip flexor, which burned when I tried to put lotion on it. But overall my skin looked better, especially on my legs, and some bruises and old scars actually looked like they had healed a little. Most noticeably, from the minute I left the clinic through the rest of the night, I did feel happier and more relaxed. I felt less stressed about my deadlines and daily worries. If I did it again, maybe I would be able to laugh with Eduardo, too.​

Banfi, who has studied the effects of cryotherapy on athletes, said it's difficult to measure how well cryotherapy has worked. Athletes benefit from the treatment because they recover more quickly from intense training sessions, Banfi said, but there's no metric for just having less joint pain, and most people's resulting "wellbeing experience" can't be quantified. If anything, patients can tell if they feel compelled to take less medication for their painful conditions, but even that is very subjective.

In an upcoming study, Rymaszewska is planning to measure certain elements in the blood—she wouldn't disclose to me which ones—to better understand the psychological effects of whole body cryotherapy. But both Banfi and Rymaszewska said that the only proven way to experience the benefits is to get in the tank for 15 three-minute sessions per day for two weeks every six months. And unless you're very wealthy, have a lot of free time and are granted constant access to these sorts of facilities (like Ronaldo), that's not really feasible.

Overall, the results weren't as drastic as I had hoped. I'm still not totally sold on the science behind cryotherapy or that everyone can experience all the results purported by clinics like Kryolife. But I understand why someone who experiences pain often, for whatever reason, would want to do the therapy. But I'm still young and relatively healthy. So for now I'll keep my $90 in my pocket and, if I want to freeze my ass off, I'll do it outside for free.