As the nitrogen fog billowed out of the cylindrical chamber, I couldn’t help but feel like Han Solo before he was frozen in carbonite in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Except I didn’t look nearly as cool as the “Star Wars” hero. I was wearing only underwear, ski gloves, socks, and rubber clogs.
I was in a private room at Gig Harbor’s Innovative Fitness about to try whole body cryotherapy. Beforehand, gym owner Jesse Ewell took my blood pressure and quizzed me to make sure I didn’t have any medical conditions (pacemaker, circulation problems) that would make the treatment dangerous. I signed a waiver then stepped inside.
I poked my head through a small opening at the top so I wouldn’t breath the gas or subject my face to the extreme temperatures.
As dramatic as the whole thing looked and sounded (the devise pumping gas into the chamber is quite loud), I was surprised about a minute into the 3-minute session to hear the temperature had dropped below minus 150 degrees.
At about two minutes, my teeth were chattering. A full-body shiver set in during the final seconds as the temperature reached minus 214 degrees.
When my time was up, Ewell unzipped the chamber door and handed me a robe. I stepped out and was surprised how quickly I warmed up. I also noticed that a nagging pain I’d felt for days in my right elbow was gone.
An ice bath is 10 times worse. … And this is 10 times more effective.”
Jesse Ewell, owner of Innovative Fitness, on the benefits of full-body cryotheraphy
The relief was temporary (about 3 hours), but cryotherapy’s potential to help athletes fight pain and recover quickly from workouts is why Ewell wanted to offer cryotherapy. Innovative Fitness is believed to be the first South Sound gym to offer the service.
Ewell was sold on cryotherapy after using it to recover from a 53-hour endurance event last year. “Some of the other guys were taking like two months to recover, I was recovered in a week,” Ewell said. “My joints feel better and I feel rejuvenated when I get out.”
Cryotherapy has become popular with professional athletes. Ewell said he bought his cryotherapy unit from a company that provided services for NFL players with the Green Bay Packers.
The benefits of cryotherapy haven’t been proven, but the idea behind it is similar to an ice bath, a staple of the recovery process for many athletes. The exposure to cold helps decrease inflammation and helps muscles recover.
Unlike a 15-minute ice bath, it’s quick and doesn’t feel nearly as cold because you are dry.
“An ice bath is 10 times worse,” Ewell said. “… And this is 10 times more effective.”
While several have expressed positive benefits at Ewell’s gym, a July article posted on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website warns that the therapy is unproven and can pose risks. Whole body cryotherapy has not been approved by the FDA.
“Given a growing interest from consumers in whole body cryotherapy, the FDA has informally reviewed the medical literature available on this subject,” FDA medical officer Aron Yustein said in the article. “We found very little evidence about its safety or effectiveness in treating the conditions for which it is being promoted.”
Whole body cryotherapy has not been approved by the FDA. In a July article on the agency’s website, the FDA said the therapy is unproven and can pose risks.
In the article, FDA scientific reviewer Anna Ghambaryan said risks include asphyxiation, frostbite, burns, and eye injury from the extreme temperatures. To avoid these hazards, Ewell said users are monitored by an employee certified to run the machine. He says burns typically happen when somebody doesn’t dry off before their session.
In October, a woman suffocated at a Las Vegas spa during a self-administered cryotherapy session. The 24-year-old worked at the facility and reportedly was using the chamber after hours while she was alone in the spa.
The FDA recommends asking your doctor before trying cryotherapy.
Ben Warfield, a 37-year-old Gig Harbor resident, has no doubts that cryotherapy works. He says it helped him nearly eliminate knee pain.
Warfield said he has had arthritic pain in his knee since he hurt it when he was 14. He’s stayed active despite the pain and is no stranger to ice bathes. Warfield had knee surgery in July and when Innovative Fitness unveiled its cryotherapy service he bought an unlimited month-long pass. (Prices start at $29 for the first visit and $39 for additional visits.)
Recently Warfield’s daughter asked him to take her skiing. In the past, he would need several days to recover from such an adventure. This time was different.
The day after skiing he did cryotherapy and compression treatment (thigh-high inflatable boots designed to help legs recover faster). “I felt zero fatigue,” Warfield said. “It was like I didn’t even do the (ski) trip. It was almost unbelievable.”
He does cryotherapy almost every day and says it’s like “going into a fitness lab.”
“It’s so much more tolerable than an ice bath,” Warfield said. He says the more often you do it, the less cold it feels. “I will definitely stick with it.”
Cost: $29 for first visit, $39 additional visits. Discounted packages are available for multiple visits.
Location: Innovative Fitness, 4902 Point Fosdick Dr NW, Gig Harbor.
Note: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests checking with your doctor before trying cryotherapy.
More info: cryotherapygigharbor.com