The Ice Treatment Cometh: Super-Cold Cryotherapy Arrives in CT

Photos by Arnold Gold

Three times a week Theresa Ercoli enters a dimly lit back room of Grace Medical Aesthetics in Middlebury.

Once in the room, the 43-year-old triathlon runner who works as a personal trainer at the Waterbury YMCA and a jeweler at Sullivan’s Jewelers in Middlebury, steps into a large, cylinder-shaped chamber that looks like a device from a science fiction movie. A platform she is standing on is mechanically adjusted until her head sticks above the rim of the chamber. An attendant types into a control panel and vapor begins to fill the chamber where it wafts around Ercoli’s head like steam rising from a pot of boiling water.

Over the next few minutes the chamber will become astoundingly cold. The device is capable of lowering the temperature to minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit, colder by far than the lowest temperature ever recorded on the planet (about minus 136 degrees).

​Ercoli is not taking part in a cultish experiment, or being interrogated by an unscrupulous questioner; she’s entered the chamber for an increasingly popular form of treatment known as cryotherapy. This spring, Grace Medical Aesthetics health spa became the first place in Connecticut to offer it, but it won’t be alone for long: KryoLife, a Manhattan-based cryotherapy treatment center, has announced plans to open a location in Greenwich at some point this year.

Proponents say the 1- to 3-minute treatment reduces chronic pain and inflammation, relieves muscle fatigue, improves overall mood, burns calories, smooths wrinkles, increases metabolism and releases a burst of endorphins.

The treatment, which costs $75 at Grace Medical Aesthetics for non-members, was developed in the late 1970s by Toshima Yamauchi, a Japanese doctor who used it to treat pain and inflammation in patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. In recent years it has made inroads in the U.S. and created buzz in places like New York City and California.

During the treatment, liquid-nitrogen vapor is released into the chamber, rapidly decreasing the temperature inside. The extreme cold causes, among other things, the body to constrict all the blood vessels and capillaries in the skin as it attempts to reduce cold transfer. This causes a rush of blood to the core. After the treatment the body once again tries to keep its equilibrium by ballooning blood vessels and capillaries up to four times their normal diameter, which proponents believe increases circulation, oxygenation and enzyme activity.

Mark Wipfler, an M.D. whose wife, Charis Wipfler, is a nurse practitioner and owns Grace Medical Aesthetics, says that unlike putting ice on a bruise or ache, which slows circulation, this process speeds circulation up. Also, unlike an ice pack, cryotherapy is not a localized treatment, so even if your neck protrudes out of the cylinder, it should still reap the benefits of the process.

Far from being unpleasant, Ercoli says, the process is invigorating. “When I get out of it I feel like I have the most energy; I am so super hyper afterwards,” she says, adding it helps with aches and pains.

Because of the body’s dramatic response to the extreme temperature change, “your core temperature doesn’t drop,” says Mark Wipfler. This makes the treatment less intense than it sounds.

To Ercoli it is a much less difficult treatment than an ice bath. “There’s no comparison, the plunge bath actually hurts,” she says. With cryotherapy, “You’re cold, but you can bear it. It’s not anything too bad. You’re in and out in 3 minutes, and it doesn’t hurt and there’s no shaking, nothing.”

Those who sing the praises of cryotherapy include athletes like LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal, as well as entertainers like Demi Lovato and Lindsay Lohan. But because the FDA has not approved the treatment and it is unregulated, there are concerns about its safety. In October, Chelsea Ake-Salvacion, a 24-year-old worker at a spa that offered the treatment in Nevada, died after entering one of the chambers after hours by herself, which goes against standard cryotherapy protocol. The cause of death was determined as asphyxia caused by low oxygen levels. In Texas, a woman brought a lawsuit against a cryotherapy-treatment center, claiming it froze her arm, resulting in third-degree burns, disfigurement and loss of use. In 2011 Olympic sprinter Justin Gatlin arrived at a world championship with frostbitten feet after he wore sweaty socks during a cryotherapy session.

Charis Wipfler says these unfortunate accidents highlight why the treatment should be undertaken with great care. “We have EMTs [or nurses] running the machines,” she says. “While it’s not a medically approved treatment, we do oversee it medically.”

Those getting the treatment disrobe to undergarments and are given a new pair of socks, they are also given protective gloves, as the biggest risk is from ice-burning from touching a cold surface. The room that houses the chamber also has an oxygen sensor and an alarm button that an employee can press if something goes wrong.

Beyond safety, there are questions about the health benefits of cold treatments in general. In a Washington Post story about cryotherapy and other treatments in January, the author, Emily Sohn concluded, “So far, scientists have failed to find strong evidence that cold therapies can help with much of anything, including muscle soreness or recovery from exercise.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a benefit; it simply hasn’t been verified yet. Meanwhile, those who undergo treatments swear by them. “It’s amazing what people can get from it,” Charis Wipfler says.

Ercoli has began recommending it to her personal-training clients. “A lot of my clients and a lot of the triathletes that I train, they’re going,” she says. “You have to try it, especially if you have arthritis or if you have muscle tear.”

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