Tablet Life & Arts

Can a blast of arctic air make you healthier?

The temperature outside is barely above freezing, and the streets are still slick with “cobblestone” ice as Fort Worth recovers from one of its worst winter storms in a decade. Perhaps this early December day is not the best day to strip off my clothes, step inside a futuristic-looking chamber and be blasted with liquid nitrogen until the temperature drops to 268 degrees below zero.

But here I am in the waiting room of the newly opened Cryo Spa on Foch Street in Fort Worth, being assured by co-owner Allison Chambers of the numerous benefits of “cryogenic chamber therapy”: increased circulation, greater energy, a considerable boost to my immune system.

Plus, Chambers says, it won’t really feel that cold.

“It’s a dry cold, because there’s no humidity,” she says. “That makes it invigorating and not painful.”

The idea of cryogenic therapy originated in Japan in the late 1970s, when doctors began using extreme cold to soothe patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that a group of scientists in Poland developed the individual “cryogenic chamber,” where liquid nitrogen is used to rapidly lower the atmospheric temperature. The Polish scientists believed that the treatment would be especially helpful to athletes in difficult training or recovering from injury.

Local sports teams have been cryogenic proponents for a while now. The TCU football team, the Dallas Cowboys and the Dallas Mavericks all have reported having acquired cryogenic chamber machines for their players in recent years. But the therapy is also becoming increasingly available to the public, at places like CryoUSA in Dallas, Cryo-X in Grapevine, and Sedo Laser and Life’s Medicine, both in Southlake.

Cryo Spa is the first of these frosty hotspots open to the public in Fort Worth. Co-owner Michelle Yourek first learned of the trend while watching an episode of The Dr. Oz Show in 2011 and suggested that her good friend Chambers, then struggling with serious back pain, give it a try. Chambers reports that, within just a few three-minute treatments, she had found a solution.

“There was this list of all the things that I couldn’t do because of my back, and it kept getting longer,” Chambers recalled. “But I think after the second session I started crying, because the pain was going away.”

The idea of the treatment is that when the temperature in the chamber is lowered quickly, your body goes into survival mode. All of your blood rushes to your core, and a flood of endorphins is released. The blood returns to the rest of your body and your blood vessels expand — which theoretically encourages muscle healing. There are even those who claim that it works as a hangover cure.

Oh, and the reason you don’t turn into a block of ice while you’re inside the chamber? The session lasts just three minutes, lowering your skin temperature only about five degrees. That said, you do have to wear socks and gloves — and men have to wear underwear — to protect extremities from frostbite.

Still, does cryogenic chamber therapy really work? And does it have any overall wellness benefits for someone like me, who exercises regularly but hardly qualifies as an athlete, and who isn’t really suffering from any physical ailments?

Time to lower the temperature and find out.

Getting cold in here

The spa treatment begins with the requisite filling out of medical forms. Although Chambers says there are no serious potential side effects, those with elevated blood pressure are not allowed to use the chamber (since your systolic number could raise as much as 10 points during treatment).

From there, it’s off to the locker room, where I strip to my skivvies and put on socks, slippers and gloves, all provided by Cryo Spa. A robe is also provided, so that you can make your way around the spa — though that comes off when you begin the treatment.

The cylindrical cryogenic chamber looks like one of the pods Sigourney Weaver awoke from in the beginning of Alien, except upright and without an enclosure at the top. I step inside and close the pod door behind me. Chambers stays in the treatment room as the nitrogen begins swirling around me. She instructs me to move around in a circle so that the nitrogen blasts me from all sides.

At first, it’s merely chilly. After about 30 seconds, it’s downright cold. After a minute, I’m wishing for a blanket; after 90 seconds, I’m cursing myself that I wore boxers instead of briefs. After two minutes, I can’t really think straight; I keep moving around in a circle, doing the world’s frostiest pirouette, muttering to myself, “Cold, cold, cold, cold, cold …”

At some point, this terrifying thought enters my mind: Is this how it ended for Walt Disney?

And then it’s over. Just three minutes have elapsed. Robed again, my body temperature begins to return to normal. I’m given a glass of water — it’s wise to keep hydrating for a few hours after your treatment — and promised that I’ll sleep especially well that night.

Feeling the effects

How does it feel afterward? In the immediate aftermath, it felt like I had just mainlined a can of Red Bull; the chill wore off after about 15 minutes. In the following hours, though, my entire body felt more relaxed, and — as Chambers and Yourek had promised — I was uncommonly alert and focused for an overcast late afternoon. (My sleep that night, however, seemed no better or worse than usual.)

Chambers and Yourek say that the benefits become more apparent with more treatments — a claim echoed by the muscular young man who used the chamber before me, who said that he has begun incorporating treatments into the middle of his daily workouts.

I’ll say this much, too: For those who would love to treat themselves to “spa days” but don’t always have time, well, here’s the rare spa treatment that you can do during your lunch hour, with plenty of time left to grab a sandwich.