Dr. Tamara Ghazi, medical director at Dubai’s Diversified Integrated Sports Clinic, works with dozens of patients every week. If anyone would know a good treatment to help athletes suffer less and heal faster, it would be her. Yet when I ask her about the popularity of cryotherapy in Dubai, a therapy that typically involves standing in an ice chamber for three minutes as temperatures plummet somewhere to between -110°C and -160°C, Dr. Ghazi hesitates. “I would recommend cryo as an adjunct therapy,” she says. “It feels good and cold does help reduce some inflammation… But there is no scientific evidence that it works to treat any medical condition.”
If that’s the case, then why are people doing it?
Why cooling down is heating up
Floyd Mayweather, Jr. believes in cryotherapy. In 2015, he released a promotional video for Las Vegas spa SubZero Recovery (for which he’s an investor). Mark Wahlberg has shared his cryotherapy experience on his Instagram. There are cryotherapy chambers, cryo-facials, localized cryotherapy for specific injury treatment, cryo tanks and more.
So what exactly is the allure of this ice-cold treatment?
“It’s the science of exposing the body to sub-zero temperatures to stimulate multiple mental and physical benefits,” says Nicole Abigael, marketing executive of Cryo Middle East. These benefits range from pain management, recovery, weight loss, skin tightening, cellulite reduction, stress reduction, and even better sleep, says Abigael. “It’s the most natural and non-invasive way to achieve your health and wellness goals.”
In general, whole-body cryo occurs in walk-in chambers (although the size can vary from massive rooms to tiny closets to pod-like structures where your head sticks out). Liquid nitrogen is used to drop the air down beyond freezing. With temps so cold, the sessions last around two to three minutes. The aim is to reduce blood flow, which in turn drops inflammation in soft tissue, while simultaneously flushing toxins from the skin’s surface. When you step out of the chamber, your blood vessels expand and blood rushes back through your body, while the adrenaline released leads to a feeling of euphoria, say Cryo proponents.
“I’ve done it twice and tested two different machines,” says Mike Addo, half of the Dubai fitness duo MrandMrsMuscle, from the UK. “On both occasions it soothed surface muscle soreness I had in my upper back and traps.”
Tried and tested
I’m not one for cold, but I’ll do pretty much anything in the name of faster recovery, which is how I found myself booking into a cryo session at Chenot Palace in Azerbaijan. I was told to wear a bikini, tennis shoes and socks. Gloves and a ski mask would be provided.
The treatment began in a chilled chamber, with a technician on one side of the glass and me on the other. After a minute, I was waved on through a side door into an even colder chamber. One more minute and I moved into the last and final chamber, a closet-sized room so cold that my lashes began to freeze from the steam of my breath. It was so cold I had to stop myself from taking shallow gasps. Finally the technician, with a voice projected over an intercom, told me to exit. The three minutes did not fly by. In Dubai, the experience would have more likely happened in a full-body pod or a smaller closet-like structure.
I personally didn’t notice any significant change in muscle soreness. But I did experience a rush of adrenaline and felt wide awake. It was, at the very least, exhilarating. It’s this rush that Hendrik Hoogenboezem, a Dubai fitness pro from South Africa, points to when explaining why he regularly does cryo. “I love it for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that it enables me to circulate blood better through my body and muscles, and actually all the way through my skin.”
He points to doing cryo two to three times per week for helping him prevent injuries. It also helps him recover faster, Hoogenboezem says. “I love to train and hate taking days off.”
The issue numerous experts note with cryotherapy is quite simple: they can’t seem to scientifically prove it works.
While it’s linked to the long-standing idea that icing helps reduce inflammation and is in turn beneficial, this concept itself might be inherently flawed.
“There’s more and more evidence coming out that the inflammation that cold reduces is actually imperative for the recovery and healing process,” Joseph Costello, an exercise physiologist at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, told the Washington Post. “The human body is more intelligent than an ice pack.”
Experts acknowledge ice and cold is beneficial for overall pain reduction. But does this mean it helps in healing and recovery? Maybe or maybe not. A 2012 review of 17 trials found little evidence that marathon runners who sat in ice baths after long runs recovered any faster than those who didn’t. It might help with discomfort, the researchers acknowledged. But the studies were too small in size and of too low a quality to prove the ice baths actually helped with recovery and fatigue.
Another study examined what happened when cyclists iced just one leg; here, the muscular benefits from the workout were more in the leg that wasn’t chilled.
There are also some very real dangers to whole-body cryo. A salon worker froze to death in 2015 after entering a cryro chamber unsupervised. At the time, the shop was empty, and she was found 10 hours later; an operating error was ruled as the cause of the tragedy.
“If you have systemic issues, especially diabetes, it can dangerously compromise blood flow in the extremities,” notes Allen Huffman, a chiropractor who uses localised cryo. Heart conditions, allergies or a particular susceptibility to cold are all also potential dangers.
“It really comes down to the individual doing the research and deciding if it’s something they want to do,” Huffman adds in a piece for Women’s Health. “A responsible physician is not going to recommend something that isn’t proven.”
If cryo’s actual benefits exist in a grey area, what explains the pain reduction many athletes report experiencing? This could be due to a placebo effect.
“When you strip down to your shorts and put on two pairs of gloves and a pair of socks and go into a chamber that’s set colder than the coldest temperature ever recorded on earth and stand there for three minutes, that’s a massive opportunity for someone to sustain a placebo effect,” says Costello.
Ultimately, the research on cryo is still fairly fuzzy. People could use it after a big workout for recovery, says Dr. Ghazi. “But I’d just as much recommend a cold shower or ice bath after a long run or hard workout in the UAE, where temperatures are usually quite high,” she notes.
“Don’t expect it to replace a good night’s sleep, proper rest from training,” instead of overloading muscles, “and good nutrition when it comes to recovery.”
How and where to get cryotherapy in the UAE
If you’re tempted to try cryo, you can visit Jumeirah Emirates Tower, Beauty Connection Spa (women only), Abu Dhabi Country Club and The Platform Studios in Dubai.
Expect to spend around Dh350 per session. There are packages that make this more affordable.
And make sure you are supervised by a trained professional for the entire session.
Featured photo: Cryo