For Jeana Lautigar, the lunch hour means it’s time to make a “freeze and food” run to revive her senses.
Freeze, as in pop into the nearest cryotherapy clinic and expose her whole body to extremely low temperatures found only in outer space.
On a recent afternoon at the Locker in Minneapolis — one of many businesses cropping up nationwide to offer this alternative therapy — the Edina woman slipped out of her clothes, donned a white robe, gloves and slippers and then stepped into a tall cylindrical metal chamber.
With the help of a Locker employee, she submerged her whole body into the chamber — except for her head, which bobbed above a liquid nitrogen vapor cloud.
“It’s freezing,” Lautigar said, laughing while running in place. With temperatures as low as minus-265 degrees Fahrenheit, the conditions inside the sci-fi-like chamber make the most frigid January day seem downright tropical.
“I don’t want to be here, but I know it’s only 2½ minutes,” said Lautigar, 48. Once time was up, she wrapped up in her robe and stepped out of the chamber — shivering but still smiling.
“I really do have more energy,” she said of the effects she gets from her sessions.
Lautigar is among a growing number of full-body cryotherapy fans seeking relief for everything from muscle soreness to fatigue to chronic pain and anxiety and depression. Professional athletes such as LeBron James use it to boost their athletic performance — a celebrity connection that has, in turn, boosted interest in the procedure.
The treatment operates on the principle that cold heals, the theory behind ice baths. But, as with other nonmedical therapies, there is scant scientific evidence to judge its effectiveness as a remedy or as a performance enhancer.
The practice also has come under scrutiny over its safety after the death of a woman in Nevada who worked at a cryotherapy clinic and was found frozen in one of the chambers in October. In addition, Olympic sprinter Justin Gatlin suffered frostbite on his feet in 2011 after he wore sweaty socks during a full-body cryotherapy treatment.
The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate alternative therapies. Likewise, alternative health practitioners are not monitored by the Minnesota Department of Health because they are not licensed.
Hooked on cold
It took just one freeze to hook Branden Johnson.
Owner of the Locker, he first discovered full-body cryotherapy while playing professional basketball in the NBA’s developmental league. The first time he tried it, he said, he felt tired — so tired he needed a nap. But after a short rest, he said, he was so energized that he played basketball for six hours straight.
“The only reason I stopped was there was nobody else to play with,” he said. “That was it for me.”
He became such a believer that he decided to open his own cryotherapy business, which operates out of a strip mall near Lake Calhoun. On an average day, Johnson, who has a sports psychology degree, sees 60 clients who pay $35 a session for what he calls “rejuvenation therapy.”
“They want to feel better or be better,” he said of his customers. “Bottom line, they’re coming for the pain management piece or they’re an athlete looking for an edge.”
Unlike ice baths, full-body cryotherapy is not painful, Johnson insisted. The time is so short that the core body temperature remains the same throughout the procedure, he said.
The made-in-Poland chamber has a floor that rises, adjusting for the customer’s height to ensure that his or her head and neck are above the chamber at all times. That’s for safety reasons, Johnson said. Clients are never left alone and the chamber doors do not lock, so people can get out if they feel uncomfortable.
(The woman who died in the Nevada clinic was using the tank after hours while no one else was there. Investigators have yet to determine whether she got trapped in the chamber or passed out and collapsed into the liquid nitrogen, which contains no oxygen.)
Once a customer is inside the chamber, a staff member administers the liquid nitrogen. Three minutes is the absolute maximum.
“There’s no clinic in the country that will let you stay in longer than three minutes,” Johnson said. “After three minutes and 30 or 40 seconds, then you start pulling moisture from the skin, which would create frostbite. Beyond that, you’d have to get about four to five minutes before the body actually starts the hypothermia stage.”
To prevent frostbite, he said, clients wear gloves and slippers to protect their extremities. They’re told not to enter with wet skin, and they must sign a waiver.
Doctors weigh in
Doctors say the purported benefits of full-body cryotherapy have not been verified by science.
But there is something to the idea that cold can bring comfort.
“The cold causes vascular [blood vessel] constriction,” explained Dr. Corey Wulf, of Twin Cities Orthopedics in Edina. “Because you’re not getting the blood supply, that decreases the metabolism in those muscles. It slows the swelling and inflammation that goes along with it.”
That, in turn, can reduce pain.
This fall, a summary of four scientific studies done on the effectiveness of cryotherapy found that the results are inconclusive. But as with many alternative therapies, belief that it is working is often enough to satisfy the patient.
“A lot of those patients are self-selecting,” Wulf said. “They’re going into the idea that ‘this is really going to help me.’ They’re more inclined to feel like it helped them.
“Placebo isn’t necessarily bad. If you do it and you feel like it helps you feel better, that’s OK. As long as you’re OK with spending the money on it.”
Added Dr. Michael Broton, a sports medicine doctor at the University of Minnesota: “If I were going to boil down the benefits, I’d say that when we cool something down, it tends to help with pain. We see that with ice.
“But I don’t know if the whole-body cryotherapy is any better than an ice pack. Or any better than getting into some cold water.”