How Whole-Body Cryotherapy Works

Freezing Up

Justin Gatlin celebrates after winning the gold at the 2004 Olympics. Seven years later, he'd experience some nasty cryotherapy-induced skin problems.
Justin Gatlin celebrates after winning the gold at the 2004 Olympics. Seven years later, he'd experience some nasty cryotherapy-induced skin problems.

The cryotherapy industry is largely unregulated. But that might change soon. The death of Chelsea Ake-Salvacion was a big wake-up call, but there have been other injuries. As of late 2015, a Texas woman named Alix Gunn was suing a cryotherapy center for freezing her arm. She claims she was given wet gloves to wear during the treatment and that the result was third-degree burns, loss of use and disfigurement. The center, CryoUSA, says Gunn signed a liability waiver and wasn't ensuring her own safety [source: Turkewitz].

But these are hardly the first signs of potential drawbacks to cryotherapy. Back in 2011, sprinter and Olympic-gold-medal-winner Justin Gatlin was training in Orlando, Florida, for the world championships in South Korea. After his Olympic win in 2004, he had been banned from competing for four years for doping. So in 2011 he was determined to come back strong and compete against the new kid on the block, Usain Bolt [source: AP].

At 9 a.m. in Orlando the temperature had already soared to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius), and Gatlin was sweating when he stepped into the cryotherapy booth. His socks, soaked with perspiration, instantly froze to his feet. Frostbite followed [source: AP].

By the time he arrived in Daegu, South Korea, the pus and blisters on his feet were healing, but the fresh scars lined up perfectly with the top of his socks and the back of his running spikes. Hobbled by frostbite from that cyrotherapy session, Gatlin was smoked by Usain Bolt. Gatlin has since returned to form, and in 2015 he ran the year's five fastest 100-meter races [source: Wharton].

In the wake of Ake-Salvacion's death, the state of Nevada has issued new guidelines for those using cryotherapy. For now, these guidelines amount to "suggestions" and are not legal regulations. According to Dr. Tracey Green, Nevada's chief medical officer, the guidelines recommend that cryotherapy users should:

  • Be over 18
  • Be taller than 5 feet (1.5 meters)
  • Have no history of stroke, seizures or high blood pressure
  • Not be pregnant
  • Not have a pacemaker

Further, a single three-minute session per day is the recommended max, and blood pressure should be taken before and after. Cryotherapy centers should have emergency kits, defibrillators and nitrogen monitors, and employees should know CPR. According to the guidelines, centers should also have signs and waivers that explain the risks involved, in addition to the fact that there's no scientific evidence of any health benefits from undergoing a deep freeze [source: Rinkunas].

They could add: Always have somebody hanging around to keep an eye on you — and no wet clothes allowed!

Author's Note: How Whole Body Cryotherapy Works

I like swimming in the cold Atlantic and then taking a hot bath to warm up. Afterwards I feel great. Better than great — euphoric. It's the same reason it's fun to heat up in a sauna and then roll around in the snow. I'm not sure what the science is; maybe it has something to do with promoting circulation. Cryotherapy enthusiasts report euphoria as well, maybe for the same reason. But all things considered, I think I'll stay away from the liquid nitrogen and get my kicks from old-fashioned cold water and warm air.

Related Articles


  • Associated Press. "Justin Gatlin Dealing With Frostbite." ESPN. Aug. 24, 2011. (Dec. 3, 2015)
  • Cancer Research UK. "Cryotherapy." Sept. 3, 2015. (Dec. 2, 2015)
  • Costello, J.T. et al. "Muscle, Skin and Core Temperature After -110 C Cold Air and 8 C Water Treatment." Plos One. Nov. 6, 2012. (Dec. 2, 2015)
  • Costello, J.T. et al. "Whole-Body Cryotherapy for Preventing and Treating Muscle Soreness After Exercise." Cochrane. Sept. 18, 2015. (Dec. 2, 2015)
  • The Fulton County Republican. "Professor Sugarman's Latest Feat." April 13, 1899. (Dec. 1, 2015) 11/Johnstown NY Fulton County Republican/Johnstown NY Fulton County Republican 1896-1899 Grayscale/Johnstown NY Fulton County Republican 1896-1899 Grayscale - 0403.pdf
  • Huttunen, Pirkko et al. "Winter Swimming Improves General Well-Being." International Journal of Circumpolar Health. Vol. 63, No. 2. 2004. (Dec. 9, 2015)
  • The New York Times. "Objects to Ice Water Baths.; Therefore Mrs. Wellington of Omaha Asks for a Divorce." Aug. 2, 1899. (Dec. 1, 2015)
  • Rettner, Rachael. "Can a Person Freeze to Death?" Livescience. Jan. 7, 2010. (Dec. 2, 2015)
  • Rinkunas, Susan. "After Woman's Death, Nevada Sets Cryotherapy Guidelines." New York Magazine. Nov. 23, 2015. (Dec. 3, 2015)
  • Robinson, Michael. "Chilling Out at -160 C: The Star Takes a Dip in a Cryosauna." The Star. July 20, 2015. (Dec. 1, 2015)
  • Rosen, Meghan. "Putting the Big Chill on Cryotherapy." Science News. Nov. 13, 2015. (Dec. 1, 2015)
  • Sterbenz, Christina. "CHART: Here's How Long You Can Stay Outside in Extreme Cold Temperatures Before Getting Frostbite." Business Insider. Jan. 5, 2014. (Dec. 9, 2015)
  • Subzero Cryotherapy. "Frequently Asked Questions." 2013. (Dec. 1, 2015)
  • Turkewitz, Julie. "Claims for Cryotherapy Treatment Get New Scrutiny After a Death." The New York Times. Nov. 5, 2015. (Dec. 1, 2015)
  • U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. "Hazards of Nitrogen Asphyxiation." Safety Bulletin. June 2003. (Dec. 1, 2015)
  • Watercutter, Angela. "Harrison Ford Wanted Han Solo Killed Off Long Ago." Wired Magazine. Oct. 30, 2015. (Dec. 1, 2015)
  • Wharton, David. "Justin Gatlin Still Paying for Past Doping Sanctions." Los Angeles Times. Oct. 7, 2015. (Dec. 2, 2015)
  • Women in the World Staff. "Coroner: Woman Who Died in Cryotherapy Accident Didn't Freeze to Death." The New York Times. Nov. 11, 2015. (Dec. 2, 2015)