ROSEVILLE, Calif.: The important advice offered before stepping into an ice chamber set at minus 166 degrees was simple: Don’t inhale. At least not at first. The woman working at the cryotherapy chamber told us to take a deep breath before stepping into the coldest freezer on Earth.
So of course, the first thing I did upon stepping into the ice palace was gasp. And then scream. And then swear.
Cryotherapy is a new recovery technique infiltrating American professional sports. It was developed in Japan in 1980 and has remained popular throughout Europe for years, but has only caught fire within the NBA, MLB and NFL within the past few years. The Cavaliers first visited the U.S. Cryotherapy center last season on their West Coast trip through Sacramento, Calif.
After talking about the experience with a couple of players last year, the Plain Dealer’s Mary Schmitt Boyer and I insisted on checking out the facility this season, provided the team hadn’t moved to Seattle. Fox Sports Ohio’s Allie Clifton came along and the three of us visited the facility about 20 miles outside Sacramento last weekend.
Clients strip down to as little clothing as possible and initially walk into a chamber set at minus 76 degrees to allow their bodies to adjust to the drastic cold. After remaining in there for 30 seconds, the chamber operator calls through the intercom and instructs you to move into the next chamber, set at a spit-freezing minus 166 degrees.
The polar vortex that ripped through Northeast Ohio recently plunged temperatures to minus 11. This chamber is 15 times colder — and I was standing shirtless in it for 2½ minutes.
Music was pumped into the freezer and we were allowed to choose our own song. After considerable debate, we finally settled on Vanilla Ice’s Ice, Ice Baby, because it just fit so well.
“The first time is the worst. Your mind is telling you, ‘I might die,’ ” Luke Walton said last year after the Cavs’ visit. Walton is a big proponent of cryotherapy and has used it often. “You can feel the saliva freezing in your mouth.”
Skin temperature drops
The medical benefit behind cryotherapy is the drop in skin temperature. There is nothing significant about the minus 166 degrees, U.S. Cryotherapy Chief Operating Officer Kevin Kramer said, the chamber simply must be cold enough to significantly reduce the temperature of the skin, which promotes the healing, in a short amount of time.
You could get the same effect from standing outside on a really cold day, Kramer said, but it would take significantly longer. And who aside from drunken Browns fans would stand shirtless in 20-degree weather all day?
Workers take the temperature of the skin before entering and after exiting the chamber. My skin was 88 degrees upon entering and had dropped to 59 degrees in just three minutes. But we weren’t in the chamber long enough to drop our core body temperature, just the skin temperature.
According to the company’s website, the body is induced into a physiological response during the exposure without causing the extreme body chill caused by ice baths. The blood vessels quickly constrict to form a protective layer while the core body temperature is maintained.
The process naturally stimulates blood circulation with up to three times greater blood flow to the body’s damaged tissues and muscles. While visiting the facility, we spoke with one woman who uses cryotherapy three to four times a week because she had a torn ligament in her hip and a family history of medical problems. Kramer said the company has never had an accident or injury in 2½ years operating the chamber, and that cryotherapy can be used multiple times a day. It doesn’t have to be a full body treatment. Kramer’s company has equipment for localized, spot treatments.
I’ve battled problems with my sciatic nerve for years. After three minutes in the chamber, one worker used spot treatment and cooled the skin temperature on my hip to 34 degrees. The discomfort in my hip the next day was considerably less.
The Cavs briefly considered installing a walk-in chamber at their practice facility, but passed at the $400,000 investment. The NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans, the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers and Brooklyn Nets and baseball’s Washington Nationals and Anaheim Angels all have forms of either the chamber or localized treatment equipment.
A couple of NBA players have even installed chambers in their homes, Kramer said.
Now Kramer is aggressively pursuing other NFL teams. While players waste so much time in ice baths, Kramer argues an NFL team could treat an entire 53-man roster in less than an hour using his chambers, which are large enough to hold four people at once.
“If you could treat everyone in the locker room daily, you could prevent micro injuries from becoming macro issues,” Kramer said.
There are two types of cryotherapy chambers presently on the market: the walk-in chamber we used in Sacramento and the open-faced, nitrogen sauna former Cavs guard Manny Harris was using at Nike a few years ago when he severely burned his foot.
The nitrogen sauna Harris used blows forced nitrogen at the feet that cools as the vapors rise. Harris wore wet socks into the chamber, despite multiple signs warning not to do so, and essentially gave himself severe frostbite once the nitrogen reached his feet.
The Phoenix Suns, according to a report in the Arizona Republic two years ago, have a nitrogen sauna installed at their facility at a cost of about $50,000 and international soccer superstar Ronaldo has a personal nitrogen sauna, too.
The difference between the two treatments is considerable. The head is exposed in the nitrogen sauna, while the walk-in chamber we used is set at one temperature. Clients are given dry socks and moccasins to protect their feet, plastic gloves covered up by heavy mittens, a surgical mask to aid breathing and a headband to cover the ears.
I asked one woman working at the facility whether men should wear underwear under their shorts and her eyes widened.
“Oh, yeah, you definitely want to wear underwear,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s going to be reeaaally cold. And I think you know where I’m going with this.”
The center in Sacramento is open to the public. Anyone can walk in without an appointment and pay $30 to receive the chamber treatment, spot treatment and five minutes on a hydro massage bed. Annual memberships are also available.
It is a family business, but is on the verge of expanding into Chicago, Los Angeles and Grand Cayman. Kramer estimated the company has installed about 60 devices across the country. Some of those are the walk-in chambers and part of that figure is the localized equipment designed to treat specific body parts.
I yelled so loud upon entering the minus 166-degree chamber that workers outside heard me curse. That’s fairly common among the rookies.
“It’s a fun thing,” Kramer said. “It’s weird because you don’t know what to expect. I’ve gone hundreds of times. I don’t even anticipate being cold. Once the anxiety is gone, then people start to notice the benefits.”
Clients scroll through a checklist of medical conditions before entering. People with heart problems, skin conditions or blood disorders are encouraged not to use the chamber, but typically healthy people aren’t really in danger of health risks since the body’s core temperature never really drops.
“Once you realize those things,” Kramer said, “it changes your perspective a little bit.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.