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What is cryotherapy and does it work? Experts discuss

A lot of celebrities are into cryotherapy, but experts discuss whether the potential benefits are worth the risks.
/ Source: TODAY

Celebrities like Mark Wahlberg, Steph Curry, Lebron James and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Lisa Vanderpump are all fans of an intense health trend: cryotherapy. They believe that standing in a chamber that delivers sub-zero blasts of air for two to five minutes reduces inflammation and halts aging.

Well, this week, TODAY anchors Al Roker and Craig Melvin were game to give it a try. So, how did it go?

"It's the coldest I've ever been," Craig said. He screamed as he came out of the cryotherapy chamber.

Al actually said he felt "pretty good," while in the chamber, but Craig pointed out he had frost in his eyelashes and eyebrows when he emerged.

Did they sell you on the idea yet? You might want to think twice before hopping into a tank: A recent case study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology warned that cryotherapy comes with real risks.

“I was more surprised that it took so long for someone to publish a case study about cryotherapy. It’s ridiculousness,” Dr. Adam Friedman, a professor of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C., told TODAY.

The case study looked at a 71-year-old man who visited a dermatologist after he developed a “cold burn” following a malfunctioning in his cryo chamber. The man regularly underwent cryotherapy for back pain and arthritis. People receiving cryotherapy stand in a chamber that is cooled with sprays of liquid nitrogen, which is chilled to between -100 and -140 degrees Celsius. The liquid nitrogen never touches the skin.

“They do it by spraying liquid nitrogen around the body for a short amount of time and it cools you very quickly,” Dr. Anthony Rossi, an assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, told TODAY. “People think it helps with inflammation the same way ice helps with sore muscles.”

But there’s little to no evidence that cryotherapy does anything to soothe muscle pain (and Friedman said he has no idea why people think it would work as an anti-aging treatment).

“This isn’t validated science. The few studies existing show there is no difference with cryotherapy and doing nothing,” Friedman said.

Dermatologists use liquid nitrogen in second-long squirts to remove warts, skin growths and select carcinomas. In these cases, the subzero liquid nitrogen freezes the water in the cells, killing the abnormal skin. While using liquid nitrogen like this is a standard procedure administered by doctors, cryotherapy is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and doctors do not administer it.

“We caution people that you really have to take into account that you are doing something that has not been tested. This is not regulated and we don’t know the acute effects, or the long-term effects, if there are any,” Rossi said.

In the case of the 71-year-old man, it is likely one of the nozzles broke, spraying the liquid nitrogen directly on the skin. This would cause a hot burning sensation, despite it being so cold.

“Liquid nitrogen is going to flash freeze all the cells in the skin,” Friedman explained.

This caused a painful blister, which is why the man sought care.

“Depending on how deep the wound was, that could potentially scar,” Rossi explained. “It is an unfortunate incident.”

The experts urge people interested in cryotherapy to talk to their doctors before pursuing.

“From a purely scientific point of view it is not really well studied enough for us to recommend it,” Rossi said. “It is sort of self-treating for something and it isn’t a good idea.”