HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. - Brandon Elsasser was aware that professional athletes were using cryotherapy for muscle recovery and optimal performance.
So when Elsasser, an avid tennis player, learned that a new cryotherapy spa was opening in Highland Park, Ill., he was among the first clients.
"I was always on the lookout for something," said Elsasser, a 32-year-old Northbrook, Ill., resident seeking relief from the lower back and leg pain he experiences after a tennis match or his daily workout.
He's felt so good after his three-minute exposures to extreme cold that he now visits CryoPureSpa about four or five times each week. During each visit, he steps inside a cryotherapy sauna that fills with gaseous nitrogen, lowering the temperature inside to 130 degrees Celsius, the equivalent of 266 degrees below zero on the Fahrenheit scale.ss
"It probably took two or three sessions to notice that I was less sore," he said. "I've also been sleeping really well, really hard and through the night."
That's not surprising to CryoSpaPure owners Paige and Tom Polakow, who opened their spa in mid-June. Some of their early clients have come in specifically for sleep issues.
"There is a release of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep," said Tom Polakow, a registered nurse by profession. He said there also is a release of norepinephrine, which triggers the body's 'fight or flight' response.
"It's kind of like coffee on steroids," he said. "People who do the whole body therapy usually have an immediate burst of energy."
Paige Polakow said a Japanese physician started using cryotherapy in 1978 with rheumatoid arthritis patients. Whole body cryotherapy is now used in more than 70 hospitals in Europe, according to the spa's literature.
"In European studies, it has been proven to stabilize mood and help with anxiety and depression," she said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in a July consumer health bulletin that a review of medical literature on cryotherapy revealed "very little evidence about its safety or the effectiveness in treating the conditions for which it is being promoted." The bulletin said the effect of the cold temperatures on blood pressure, heart rate and metabolism are unknown. The agency said it undertook the review because of growing consumer interest, and advised consumers to consult with their physicians.
"Consumers may incorrectly believe that the FDA has cleared or approved (Whole Body Cryotherapy) devices as safe and effective to treat medical conditions," Aron Yustein, a physician in the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiologic Health was quoted as saying. "That is not the case."
CryoPureSpa's literature lists 11 conditions as contraindications - that is, reasons to avoid cryotherapy. They include untreated high blood pressure, pregnancy, congestive heart failure, a recent heart attack, severe anemia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Whole body cryotherapy saunas are open at the top so the client's head remains outside the chamber. Thermal gloves and shoes are worn to insulate the hands and feet.
At CryoPureSpa, clients typically start with a one-minute session at minus 110 degrees Celsius, the equivalent of minus 166 degrees Fahrenheit. "We are with them the entire time, and (the sauna) is not locked, so they can push it open at any time or just tell us to stop," said Paige Polakow.
"Obviously, we believe in cryotherapy or we wouldn't have started the business," said Paige Polakow. "What's been exciting is to have our own clients experiencing the benefits reported in the research, and coming back."
Seeking relief from knee inflammation, triathlete Gregory Hoots signed up for 10 cryotherapy treatments at the Highland Park spa.
"Honestly, I have been feeling pretty good," said Hoots, a 48-year-old Buffalo Grove, Ill., resident who has competed in the Ironman, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 122-mile bicycle race and a 26.2-mile run.
"My knees feel the best they have in the last few years," he said. "And I have been able to sleep very well a day or two after treatment."
Hoots was not dissuaded by the inconclusive or conflicting literature.
"To me, it's no different than trying to get acupuncture or any other treatment," said Hoots, who figured he had nothing to lose. "I have actually had four knee surgeries," he said, "so it was a way to keep my racing career going a little longer."