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Cryochamber: More comfortable than an ice bath, but does it work?

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

If you're a runner, you probably know that special joy of climbing into a bathtub filled with ice and cold water.

Your teeth chatter, your lips fade to blue and you channel thoughts of cozy campfires while you endure 15 or 20 minutes of bone-chilling cold in the name of reducing inflammation and preventing muscle soreness.

Those chilly dips could become a thing of the past, according to the operators of a new Austin cryotherapy studio. They say athletes can get the same benefits by spending just two and a half minutes inside a chamber of super-cooled nitrogen gas.

The best part? The athlete stays dry and, even though the temperature of the gas drops to minus 202 degrees Fahrenheit, never feels as miserable as when languishing in a tub bobbing with ice cubes.

But the treatment is comparatively expensive, and not everyone agrees that it's any better than a traditional ice bath.

Intense exercise causes micro trauma to muscle fibers. That means inflammation and swelling. Immersion in frigid water or application of an ice pack slows that process.

Cold causes blood vessels to constrict and decreases metabolic activity, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown. Some say the re-warming of that tissue is equally beneficial.

"One of the reported effects is that afterward you get an increase of blood flow, which helps the lymphatic drainage system kind of clean out lactic acid," says Kenny Boyd, head football athletic trainer at UT.

The nearly 6-foot, $50,000 cryochamber at CryoStudio on Bee Cave Road looks strangely like a giant Coors Light can with a padded pink interior. A huge tank of nitrogen gas stands next to it.

The chamber simulates a super cold environment, tricking the body into thinking "we're about to freeze you," says Anya Ferry, owner of CryoStudio of Austin.

In two and a half minutes, the surface of the skin cools briefly to between 30 degrees and 32 degrees, but the soft muscle below doesn't get cold.

Much of the benefit comes when you step out of the chamber, Ferry says. The nearly 300-degree change in temperature causes the blood vessels to expand rapidly, rushing oxygen-rich blood from the core to the muscles. (People with hypertension shouldn't use the machine, she says.)

Whole-body cryotherapy using cold gas technology is relatively new. It's been used at health and wellness spas in Europe since the mid-1990s but didn't migrate to the United States as therapy for athletes until early this year.

Runners at Nike headquarters in Oregon use one of the machines; so do athletes at ESPN World in Florida. The Dallas Mavericks have a cryotherapy chamber, and the San Antonio Spurs lease one. Dr. Oz recently did a live demonstration with one of the machines on his television show.

Curious about whether nippy nitrogen gas is a viable alternative to ice bath misery or just a dramatic stage effect, I headed to CryoStudio of Austin after a seven-mile morning run.

I removed my clothes, leaving on my socks to protect my feet from frostbite. Then I stepped into the chamber and snapped the door shut. Ferry turned on the gas, which she assured me is harmless. Under her direction, I rotated slowly while chilly, whitish blasts of gas filled the chamber.

For the next 21/2 minutes, I felt like I was standing in a cloud of dry ice. I felt cold, especially the last 30 seconds, but not unbearably so. It felt like I'd peeled off my bathrobe and was standing outside on a snowy day.

I warmed up as soon as I stepped out of the Silver Bullet.

"It definitely feels cold, but not as uncomfortable as an ice bath," says Ferry, a personal trainer who earned her master's degree in physical education. She ran track at Texas State University, where her mother, Galina Bukharina, recently retired as head track coach.

One of the reported benefits of whole-body cryotherapy is a boost of energy and improved athletic performance. I didn't notice that, but I did feel about the same as if I'd taken an ice bath — pleasantly pooped from my run, without much post-run soreness.

In Austin, CryoStudio Austin clients include triathletes, basketball players and Abigail Ruston, a 28-year-old former collegiate shot putter hoping to make it to the 2012 Olympic Games after an injury-stalled attempt at the 2008 Olympics.

She's long used ice baths to reduce muscle soreness and inflammation, but calls them a "mental chore." "You have to get pumped up and tell yourself it's going to be OK before getting in an ice bath," Ruston says. "Afterward you're cold, even on a hot summer day."

This time, she's using cryotherapy instead.

"I think it's awesome that they've outsmarted the body in a sense. You don't need to go through physical punishment to get the same benefit," she says.

A review of whole-body cryotherapy in athletes published in Sports Med in 2010 noted that the treatment had an anti-inflammatory effect in a study of rugby players and that kayakers who used it had reduced microinjuries to their muscle fibers after exercise. The article concluded that whole-body cryotherapy aids athletic recovery.

But not everyone is convinced the treatment is any better than an ice bath.

At the University of Texas, football players, track and field athletes, tennis players, basketball players and other athletes use a walk-in cold water immersion tub to help reduce muscle soreness, improve recovery and treat heat illness.

The cryotherapy chamber is "really outside the box for me," says Boyd, the UT athletic trainer. "The skeptical side of you says you're cooling superficially at a rapid rate. In two minutes, are you getting effects from the deep tissue standpoint, which is what you're looking for?"

At $95 for an individual session (with discounts for multiple visits), a trip to the cryotherapy chamber isn't cheap. Ferry recommends at least three sessions, each one no more than three days apart. Insurance doesn't cover the treatment.

That's significantly more than the cost of a bag of ice or a trip to Barton Springs.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994.

If you go

CryoStudio is at 6836 Bee Cave Road. For more information, go to www.cryostudioofaustin.com .