Skip to main content

After three years of puzzled doctors and failed pain reliever prescriptions, 20-year-old Malia Smith’s diagnosis initially came as a relief to her and her family. Her chronic pain finally had a name: lymphedema. But the relief was short-lived: Lymphedema has no cure. A painful progressive condition that swells her limbs to disproportionate sizes—at one point, she couldn’t even move her wrist—the diagnosis left Malia and her parents, Charles and Lesa, with a shortage of options.

“We were simply told to join support groups—and that massage therapy and compression therapy would help a little. But as I watched her swelling continue to progress, I had to do something,” Lesa said. “I knew there had to be something else out there.”

Months of research later, Lesa found cryotherapy. Propelled by their love of their daughter, Lesa and Charles decided to open a center of their own. Their life savings invested, Chill Zone Cryo was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, just months after their daughter’s diagnosis. But Malia and her chronic pain represent just one type of cryo-candidate. Athletes in recovery, those looking to miraculously drop some pounds, the anti-aging obsessed, insomniacs—any of these relief-seekers are looking for their answer in the form of a body-shocking chill.

What Does Cryotherapy Mean?

“Cryo” comes from the Greek word krous, which roughly translates to “cold.” Under this broad term, even ice packs could be considered cryotherapy. But what we’re talking about here is far more intense. More specifically, whole body cryotherapy (WBC) uses nitrogen gas to expose the human body to less than -170 degrees Fahrenheit for a controlled amount of time.

Yeah, that’s right. Negative 170. Brrr.

Cryotherapy gained momentum in the 1970s in Japan thanks to Dr. Toshima Yamaguchi, a researcher who was seeking a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. It has since rapidly gained popularity in Europe—and with U.S. celebrities including Mandy Moore, Alicia Keys, Jessica Alba, and Jennifer Aniston. But it has yet to really take off in the U.S., partially due to the fact that the FDA hasn’t approved it as a form of treatment for specific health conditions.

How Cryotherapy Works

My early exposure to cryotherapy was through my brother, a Division 1 college athlete who said it was transformative. His description made it sound like a sci-fi wonder, giving me flashes of a frozen Harrison Ford in The Empire Strikes Back. The idea of freezing my body to sub-zero temperatures sounded like a scene out of Dante’s Inferno—medieval torture.

I was skeptical, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Was cryotherapy the future?

Besides helping to relieve chronic pain, there were claims it could help revitalize skin, boost endorphins, and even increase metabolism. Again, the FDA hasn’t given its stamp of approval, but WBC clients swear it helps as anti-inflammatory pain relief and muscle soreness, decreases anxiety and depression, improves blood and lymphatic circulation, and improves sleep. For those with chronic and pain conditions, WBC has been reported to soothe arthritis, nerve and tendon pain, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, lupus, and chronic fatigue, among others.

Naturally, when I had the opportunity to try it out at Chill Zone, I had my trepidations, but I had to find out if it was worth any of the hype.

Note to self: Uncross legs during blood pressure tests. Photo by Kati Best.

Note to self: Uncross legs during blood pressure tests. Photo by Kati Best.

The Cryotherapy Experience

On walking in, I was immediately greeted with smiles and—you guessed it—multiple forms to sign. You can't try WBC if you’re pregnant, have seizures, claustrophobia, angina, cardiovascular disease, a pacemaker, or symptomatic lung disorders, just to name a few. 

As luck would have it, my friend (and photographer), Kati Best, had a piercing migraine right before our scheduled visit. We were about to cancel only to learn that they also provide cryotherapy spot-treatments, specifically for migraines. After a twenty-minute cryotherapy facial focusing on Kati’s migraine-prone areas, her full-on migraine regressed to a normal headache. While no big miracle, this is surprising for anyone who knows what it's like to suffer from a migraine.

After her facial, I had to get one, too (obviously). I asked them to focus on my TMJ, hoping to relieve the perpetual inflammation in my jaw even just a little. The cold nitrogen was hard to get used to at first. The freezing air wasn’t so much the problem as is the fact that you can’t breath in nitrogen. This made me tense at first (and ticklish), but I eased into it and eventually relaxed. Afterwards, my skin did have a bit of glow to it.

Then it was time for the WBC. They tested my blood pressure to confirm whether I was still eligible. Fortunately I was. I undressed and got cozy. If you’re a woman, you’re not permitted to wear undergarments during the experience (due to the moisture our cycles cause)—but I was given woolen socks, slippers, and even gloves.

Then came the scary part. After I de-robed myself, I walked into what looked like it was straight out of Star Trek. The vessel is cylindrical and you stand inside of it while only your head pokes out of the open top. Due to safety regulations, someone has to be in the room with you to make sure your head will always be above the nitrogen blast which billows out of the pod like a fog.

It was shockingly cold. You’re standing there, freezing in your birthday suit. While it was the coldest my body has ever technically been, it wasn’t as cold as my body has ever felt. Nitrogen—unlike water—doesn’t penetrate deep into the skin. So while my body was going into hibernation mode, it felt significantly warmer than going into an ice bath. It was over in three minutes, which will go by fast if you have a talkative friend accompanying you.

Shivering me timbers. Photo by Kati Best.

Shivering me timbers. Photo by Kati Best.

So Does Cryotherapy Work?

I felt an endorphin boost as I began to warm up; I couldn’t help but smile. And my limbs felt a little lighter as the blood began to circulate again. I felt sprightly as I put on my jeans and walked out the door. On my way home, I was told that I looked notably cheerier.

That night, I will say, I had incredible sleep. While some may blame the placebo effect, I did feel less tension in my shoulders and neck for the next few days.

I didn't magically lose five pounds. Nor did my aches and pains disappear forever. And I think if I was to really treat my TMJ, I’d have to give it a few more sessions.

If you're intrigued by cryotherapy, I’d recommend giving it a go. You should consult a doctor beforehand and be prepared to spend anywhere from $50 to upward of $100 per treatment for WBC. 

Remember it’s not a miraculous cure-all for most of us. But for Malia Smith, it was a game changer. As her father, Charles, shares, "I think it's only a matter of time until this is a major avenue in finding relief."

Photo Credit: Kati Best