The Science of Cryotherapy: What -280 Degrees Feels Like

ABC News visited a cryotherapy center to try out a sub-zero full-body machine.

ByABC News
April 23, 2015, 2:10 PM

— -- What does it feel like to have your body immersed in sub-zero temperatures? I was soon going to find out.

I visited a cryotherapy facility to talk to a professional acrobat who says he uses the machine to relieve pain and cure injuries.

Below is an account of what it was like to be in a machine that is -280 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Experience

So how does -280 degrees feel?

That’s what I wanted to know, and it’s the reason I decided to try cryotherapy, or the therapy of cold. In this case it involved stepping into a full-body chamber and having vaporized liquid nitrogen blown at me from all angles.

You may be wondering why someone would want to jump into a machine set to sub-zero temperatures with barely anything on, but to me it was obvious. I wanted the so-called amazing health benefits I had heard were a by-product of cryotherapy.

There were tales of endorphin highs, pain relief and burning hundreds of calories in minutes. Yes, I had no idea if any of it were true, but why not try?

PHOTO: ABC News Reporter Olivia Smith tries a cryotherapy machine.
ABC News Reporter Olivia Smith tries a cryotherapy machine.

We traveled to a sports center in New Jersey that also houses a cryotherapy facility called Elite Total Body Cryotherapy. My nerves didn’t kick in until we got there and I saw the tall, cylindrical silver machine. Sitting next to it were two large metal tanks labeled “Nitrogen.”

Bright red numbers highlighting the temperature were in bold above the machine, so it would be impossible to miss the degrees of the frigid cold air hitting your body.

“The normal amount of time is three minutes,” said Sal Buscema, managing partner of the facility. “But I’m putting you in for two, because you’re new.”

I thought I could handle three, but decided not to argue.

Armed with just a swimsuit, gloves and boots I stepped inside what resembled a vertical tanning bed.

Minute One

“Okay, I’m turning it on,” Buscema said.

I glanced at the red numbers reading -52 degrees.

Then I looked down. I was surrounded by blue cushioning and standing on a small platform inside the machine that elevated automatically so my head was poking out the top.

“Don’t forget to keep moving,” Buscema said. “I want you going in circles and dancing around constantly.”

What looked like white smoke started to filter in from the sides, surrounding my body.

“It’s cold, but it doesn’t feel bad!” I yelled to Buscema as I started spinning in circles, my arms tucked by my sides.

“It’s like an accelerated air conditioner,” he said.

That’s exactly what it was. I felt like I was inside an air conditioner -- something I never thought I would experience in my life. The cold started trickling up from my toes to my knees.

“If you’re really cold you can bring your arms up over your head,” Buscema said. “Keep your nose up so you don’t inhale anything!”

As soon as I lifted my arms out of the machine, I felt warmth. But it was almost like my body was confused. Half was frozen, half not. So I submerged them back into the white air.

PHOTO: ABC News Reporter Olivia Smith tries a cryotherapy machine.
ABC News Reporter Olivia Smith tries a cryotherapy machine.

Minute Two

After one minute I really noticed the difference. My toes felt numb and my knees weren’t in pain, but definitely feeling tight, almost uncomfortable. The cold had moved all the way up my back. And I realized I was shivering. I kept dancing around, trying not to notice.

“It’s at -279 now!” Buscema said. “Thirty seconds left."

Perhaps sensing my nerves he then yelled, “Embrace the cold!”

In an adrenaline rush I yelled back, “I’m embracing it!”

It was like screaming on a roller-coaster, a gut reaction.

At this point I was very happy I hadn’t argued about the two minutes earlier. Sal left the room and I pushed open the door, jumping out of the machine and throwing my clothes back on.

The After-Effects

At first, I didn’t notice much to be different. My heart rate was elevated which did make me feel like I had more energy in the moment. My toes and knees were the most uncomfortable, but it was bearable- nothing to complain about. Buscema explained that’s where the air had been hitting me the most.

It wasn’t until later that I felt some improvements. The pain in my left wrist from a previous injury was much less noticeable than usual. It didn’t throb that night or even into the next day.

That following morning I was able to get out of bed right when my alarm went off, barely feeling tired- the easiest wake up I’ve had in a while. My shoulders and upper-back were as tight as usual though, so maybe the air didn’t quite reach them.

That said, who knows if one session is even effective, it could be all in my head. But I do have to say, it was quite an experience.