Dec 18, 2017

Dr Mark Schulberg is a 40-year veteran of the medical industry, with the inquisitive mind of a graduate. On today’s Show, we take a deep dive into the science of cryotherapy, with Dr Mark offering the latest research and the challenges the treatment faces in becoming widely accepted.

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. – Confucius

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By Bruce Y. Lee 

Does whole body cryotherapy (WBC), which essentially involves standing in a deep-freezing tank for several minutes, actually help you lose weight, reduce pain, improve athletic performance, improve sleep and slow aging as has been claimed? Or is WBC just another “cool” fad with claims that will eventually be refuted by scientific studies and potentially serious risks? Or is the answer somewhere in between? Some high profile athletes and celebrities have touted WBC’s benefits but the recent death of 24-year old Chelsea Patricia Ake-Salvacionduring a cryotherapy treatment has brought some increased scrutiny on a practice that has been growing in use worldwide.

Cryo- comes the Greek word “krous,” which means “icy,” “cold” or “frost.” Therapy means…well…”therapy” or “treatment.” So, any use of ice or very cold materials to treat something technically qualifies as cryotherapy. The most long-standing and common form of “cryotherapy” is the application of ice or cold packs to injuries to cause blood vessels to constrict, which reduces blood flow and alleviates pain, swelling and inflammation. While there is still some debate over the longer-term effects on healing, such localized (i.e., applied to specific part of the body) “cryotherapy” certainly seems to have clear short-term benefits and has long been standard practice among health professionals. Another type of localized “cryotherapy” that is often called “cryosurgery” is the use of very cold substances such as liquid nitrogen to freeze and remove lesions such as skin tags, moles and prostate cancer.

Unlike localized cryotherapy, WBC consists of exposing the entire body to very low (subzero) temperatures, sometimes below -200 degrees Fahrenheit, for a few minutes (typically between 2 and 4 minutes). Often, the person will stand in a tank or closet-like device, wear minimal clothing and be bathed in liquid nitrogen or refrigerated cold air…like taking the ultimate cold shower. (Some may think of Han Solo, during The Empire Strikes Back, when Darth Vader places Mr. Solo into a freezing chamber. But the differences are that with WBC “carbonite” gas is not used, you do not emerge frozen in a block of ice, and Princess Leia will not search for you after you are done.) Originated in Japan in the latter half of the 1970s (with Japanese rheumatologist Toshima Yamaguchi often credited for first developing WBC), WBC is a growing business worldwide. (Ironically, many cryotherapy centres have surfaced in warm-weather locations such as Southern California and Florida, where people go to flee colder weather.) Owners of WBC facilities range from people with formal medical training to those with little to no healthcare credentials. Elite athletes and celebrities who use WBC include Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Demi Moore, Mandy Moore, Kate Moss, Jessica Alba, Jennifer Aniston and the Dallas Mavericks, with a number of them saying that they feel better and stronger after WBC. Some people claim that WBC can even improve appearance, slow aging and shed body weight, with WBC even being labelled as a new weight loss trend.

So why should placing yourself in bitter cold for several minutes (and paying to do so) have any benefit? You’ll find a variety of claims on the Internet, particularly from those running cryotherapy facilities, ranging from decreasing inflammation to redirecting blood flow to vital organs to convincing the body that it is in danger so that it boosts its immune system and metabolism. Is there actually any evidence for these claims or are they just blowing cold smoke up your…?

A closer look shows that many of these claims are not yet grounded in credible scientific evidence. For example, there is no real scientific support that WBC is effective as a weight loss or obesity prevention measure. It is unclear how and where such beliefs emerged, especially since time and time again, evidence has shown that there is not a single “magic solution” to weight loss or obesity. Most of the existing (albeit limited) evidence focuses around the effects of WBC on musculoskeletal pain and inflammation. Health professionals have used WBC to relieve pain and inflammation from conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, ankylosing spondylitis and injuries. However, a recently published systematic review of the literature did not find compelling scientific evidence that WBC is effective in preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise in adults. Without nearly enough scientific evidence, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved WBC as a medical treatment.

Of course, the current dearth of scientific evidence supporting WBC does not mean that we won’t eventually find true benefits from WBC. There just has not been enough scientific studies yet. More WBC practitioners need to conduct or provide resources for legitimate scientific studies, before making scientifically unsubstantiated claims. At the same time, the medical community should examine WBC more closely through research and education. Compared to studies on disease treatments, historically there has been less funding for scientific research on preventive health measures that do not involve medications.

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