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The recent and still unexplained death of Chelsea Ake-Salvacion that occurred in a Nevada cryotherapy center has raised questions regarding the safety of the trendy health treatment, which has been promoted by superstar athletes such as Kobe Bryant and Floyd Mayweather.
Although whole body cryotherapy devices have been touted as remedies for conditions ranging from depression, muscle soreness and aging, manufacturers aren’t required to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration to be sold. No whole body cryotherapy devices have been cleared for medical purposes, according to FDA spokesperson Deborah Kotz. The FDA could get involved "if there are a lot of injuries reported," says Kotz.
Currently no group, other than perhaps the manufacturers themselves, is keeping track of injuries involving the devices.
While it's unclear what caused the 24-year-old spa worker's death, no investigation is planned, according to news reports. Since Ake-Salvacion wasn't on the job during the time of her accident, the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services and the Southern Nevada Health District are not intervening in the case.
In whole body cryotherapy, a person stands in a cylindrical chamber as cold air — chilled by liquid nitrogen — brings the temperature to as low as minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Clients remain in the chamber between 1.5 to 3 minutes. Advertised rates for a single treatment can range from anywhere from $20 to $90, with some spas offering package deals with a daily treatment costing around $250 per month.
There is evidence that cooling the body can help athletes play with a greater level of intensity, and recover more quickly, says William Adams, director of sport safety policy at the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut. Research also shows that cooling the body down after hard play can lead to quicker recovery.
Spas say whole body cryotherapy devices release feel-good endorphins and reduce joint inflammation, but there's no evidence cryotherapy chambers are more effective than an ice bath, says Adams.
Cryotherapy chambers also carry risks you won’t see with ice baths. For instance, skin touching the sides of the chamber can be frost burned. People who spend too much time in the chamber might experience increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, loss of coordination and confusion as their body temperatures dive below 90 degrees.
“Eventually if you’re in too cold of an environment for too long the core cools down to the point where, worst case scenario, you could have sudden cardiac arrest,” Adams says.
A recent review article published in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine concluded: “Until further research is available, athletes should remain cognizant that less expensive modes of cryotherapy, such as local ice-pack application or cold-water immersion, offer comparable physiological and clinical effects to [whole body cryotherapy].”