A Japanese rheumatologist is credited with first using short-duration freezing sessions on patients’ skin for pain management in the late 1970s. Physicians in Europe then developed whole body cryotherapy to treat inflammatory injuries and disorders, according to manufacturers’ and distributors’ websites.
With cryotherapy, an individual steps into a chamber, wearing only gloves, socks and slippers to protect their extremities. The head and neck remain at room temperature above the chamber.
As the chamber fills with nitrogen gas the temperature typically drops to an average of negative 270 to 280 degrees Fahrenheit, rapidly lowering skin temperature to approximately 32 degrees.
The extreme cold tricks the brain into believing the body is in danger of freezing and that it cannot keep the arms and legs warm. The brain signals the body to push all the blood to the core to keep the vital organs and core temperature warm enough to survive, says Mark Murdock, co-owner of CryoUSA, the national distributor for two cryosauna systems. Blood remains close to the body’s core, filtering through the cardiovascular system much faster than normal throughout a cryotherapy session, which can last up to three minutes.
Once out of the cold, the brain detects the return to room temperature. The purified, enriched oxygenated blood rapidly circulates throughout the body, says Hope Adams, a licensed massage therapist at CryoUSA.
Hall says TCU still uses other treatments, including ice baths. The cryosauna is quick and dry; ice baths take longer. In both cases, he said the extreme temperature drops aren’t pleasant. “It gets downright cold,” he says, noting that many TCU athletes only stay in the cryochamber 45 seconds to 2 1/2 minutes. “Some people tolerate the cold better than others.”
Pro triathlete Lauren Barnett of Dallas says she noticed a difference almost immediately after her treatment.
“I was able to recover from intense workouts more quickly and that meant I could hit my next hard session earlier,” says Barnett, 29, who won her pro debut Ironman 70.3 New Orleans title in April. “I could bump up my training intensity, which has helped a lot.”
Like many area venues, CryoUSA charges $75 for a single three-minute session, with discounts for packages. Local athletes, including pro runner Dawn Grunnagle, say they use cryosauna sessions after hard workouts, multiple times a week.
“It is an added cost I wouldn’t normally have,” says Henstorf, who used the treatments multiple times weekly in the three months leading up to her race. “If I wasn’t injured, I probably wouldn’t do it as frequently. Instead, I didn’t get as many massages.”