Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) is all the rage right now. Celebs and sports superstars from Mandy Moore to LeBron James are raving about its benefits.
What is it, and are the claims that it can cure everything from rheumatoid arthritis to depression true—or is it all a bunch of nonsense to bilk you out of $90 for a three-minute session?
What Is Whole Body Cryotherapy?
WBC “super-cools” the body by exposing it to cold generated by liquid nitrogen. A person stands in a can-like enclosure that is open at the top. The torso and legs are enclosed in the device and exposed to temperatures ranging from minus 200 to minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit while the head remains above the enclosure at room temperature.
Basically, the goal of WBC is to rapidly overwhelm your body’s cold sensors to the point where your body thinks it is experiencing hypothermia.
What Are The (Supposed) Benefits?
Just a quick internet search for the term “whole body cryotherapy” turns up all kinds of websites singing the praises of WBC for a number of serious illnesses and conditions—including asthma, anxiety, chronic pain, depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, migraines, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and weight loss.
Places that offer WBC may also claim that it can improve blood circulation, increase metabolism, improve recovery and soreness after workouts, and relieve joint and body pain.
With those kinds of claims, who wouldn’t be ready to fork over the money to be frozen for three minutes?
Is It Safe?
Aron Yustein, M.D., a medical officer in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, has this to say about WBC: “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. That is not the case.”
In fact, not a single WBC device has been cleared or approved by the agency in support of these claims.
“Given a growing interest from consumers in whole body cryotherapy, the FDA has informally reviewed the medical literature available on this subject,” Yustein says. “We found very little evidence about its safety or effectiveness in treating the conditions for which it is being promoted.”
Most studies that have been conducted on the effectiveness of WBC have had tiny sample sizes—we’re talking 26 or 50 participants—so it’s not nearly close to a legit representation of the population.
Moreover, the FDA has this to say about the known risks of WBC: “Potential hazards include asphyxiation, especially when liquid nitrogen is used for cooling. The addition of nitrogen vapors to a closed room lowers the amount of oxygen in the room and can result in hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, which could lead the user to lose consciousness. Moreover, subjects run the risk of frostbite, burns, and eye injury from the extreme temperatures.”