If spending a few minutes standing around in a sub-zero box, freezing away all your aches and pains (not to mention your tuchas), is your idea of a good time, you're not alone. Whole body cryotherapy is, by many accounts, the hottest way to tamp down pain and inflammation and relieve general soreness and stiffness.
Even better: Studies show that it works.
Well, kind of.
The idea of using extremely cold water or ice to calm bodily ills — that, generally, is known as cryotherapy — has been around for hundreds of years. Thousands of health clubs today are equipped with "cold plunge" pools to use after workouts. Ice therapy is now a widely accepted part of treating injuries like, say, sprained ankles. Ice is a key ingredient in every weekend warrior's best-known mnemonic, RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.
"The effects of ice have been demonstrated in numerous animal models and human studies. Ice reduces tissue temperature, blood flow, pain and metabolism," according to one study in the Journal of Athletic Training.
This latest twist on ice therapy — it's more like a really impressive double salchow than a simple twist — is whole body cryotherapy (WBC). Cold gasses are pumped into a chamber until the air temperature, by some reports, drops to more than 250 degrees below zero (that's fahrenheit).
Cold? You think? The coldest temperature recorded on Earth was only about 136 below.
The WBC sessions, mercifully, last only about three minutes.
"I don't know exactly what it's doing to your body, but I know when you get out, you just feel really good," former NBA player Grant Hill told the Arizona Republic in 2012. "I've tried it after games, mornings of back-to-backs before the second games, and before games, and I get great results."
To be certain, WBC is not for everyone. Cold weather wimps, for one, may have a problem with it. Those with certain medical conditions should be careful, too. "For example, if you have high blood pressure, if you have poor circulation in your fingers, if you have asthma, if you have blood clots anywhere, if you're pregnant — it's not something you should do," pain management specialist Dr. Houman Danesh told CBS News New York.
Is the pain really chilling out?
According to U.S. Cryotherapy — USC is one of several centers around the nation doing slightly different takes on WBC, including places with names like IceBox Therapy, Cryohealthcare and Cryo Centers of America — whole body cryotherapy can alleviate the pain associated with all sorts of problems. Not all of them are physical.
"Cold air therapy can stimulate the central nervous system causing pain cessation, general euphoria, improved psychological state, improved sleep and help muscle and tissue damage recovery," says U.S. Cryotherapy's web site.
The science behind these claims is not that straightforward. But it does show that committing your body to that type of cold has some positive effects.
In one 2011 study, French researchers noted fewer signs of inflammation among athletes after the subjects spent time in a cryotherapy chamber. The results might suggest that cryotherapy, then, helps damaged muscles.
But one of the study's authors told the New York Times that the results showed only that subjects had less inflammation. The muscles, he said, still could be damaged.
"I just don't feel that the evidence base for WBC effectiveness is there yet," Alan Donnelly, a professor at the University of Limerick, told the Times. "If WBC were a clinical treatment or a nutritional aid being put forward for FDA approval, my view is that it would not be approved."
A 2014 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine found that, "Controlled studies suggest that WBC could have a positive influence on inflammatory mediators, antioxidant capacity, and autonomic function during sporting recovery."
The same report, though, noted those findings were preliminary, and concluded that, "… less expensive modes of cryotherapy, such as local ice-pack application or CWI [Cold Water Immersion baths], offer comparable physiological and clinical effects to WBC."
Maybe the main benefit of WBC lies in its psychological effects. “[A] cold-related reduction in nervous activity, combined with an increased endorphin concentration could have an analgesic effect, reducing the perception of fatigue and pain,” a 2011 study found.
So even if researchers aren't sure if a whole body deep freeze is the best thing for you physically, taking (and surviving) that frosty leap might help you think it is. And that can't hurt.