Cryotherapy clinics boom but rheumatologists give a frosty reception

It’s the latest fad claimed to treat conditions including fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis by spending a few minutes inside an icy cold chamber.

But leading rheumatologists have labelled “whole body cryotherapy” as quackery.

The system – in which a person exposes their body from the neck down to liquid nitrogen or refrigerated vapours reaching -140 C for about three minutes inside a ‘cryochamber’– was pioneered in Japan in the 1970s to treat arthritis, but is now emerging as part of rapidly growing commercial health spa ventures the US and Australian.

Those offering the therapy claim it can treat fibromylagia, osteoarthritis, back pain and chronic pain, along with more general anti-ageing and general “wellness” benefits backed by celebrity endorsements.

And while medical experts warn there is no scientific evidence to support most of the therapeutic claims, the cryotherapy market – which also accounts for ice therapy and cryosurgery – is apparently booming, with one industry report predicting growth from USD $2.5 billion in 2015 to USD $5.6 billion by 2024.

The US Food and Drug Administration has issued consumer warnings advising that its own informal review of the medical literature found little evidence to support the safety and effectiveness of claims whole body cryotherapy is effective for fibromyalgia, OA and RA and several other chronic diseases.

The warnings came after a 24-year-old spa worker died from asphyxiation inside a cryotherapy chamber in Las Vegas.

Queensland whole body cryotherapy business Flocryo promotes its service as a safe and effective way to alleviate joint pain associated with arthritis, claiming the treatment “now maintains a secure foothold in the treatment and management of arthritis”, on its website which has a long list of contraindications including COPD, pregnancy and heart disease.

“Inflammation of the synovial membrane, caused by degradation of the joint, can be extremely painful” states advertising on Flocryo’s website. “Whole Body Cryotherapy acts by removing swelling and inflammation, and returning enriched, oxygenated blood to the joint.”

These sorts of claims are rubbished by prominent rheumatologists Professor Peter Brooks and Dr Sam Whittle.

Professor Brooks told the limbic he spent a day with the researchers who developed the technology in Japan decades ago, who had “reams of data showing nothing” suggesting to him the whole thing was a “scam funded by the Government”.

“We could see no evidence of benefit in uncontrolled studies and I have not seem anything since,” said Professor Brooks, from the Centre for Health Policy, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne.

“I am sure things have not changed. It will only increase the hip pocket pain of those undergoing the treatment”.

Dr Sam Whittle, a senior consultant at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Adelaide, said he had found no evidence the technique was effective for fibromyalgia or other rheumatic diseases, and questioned its safety.

“The thought that any of my patients would be tempted to spend this amount of money on an unproven therapy really concerns me,” said Dr Whittle, honorary treasurer of the ARA.

But the public’s appetite for such offerings gives a clear signal of the areas of unmet needs in medicine, he said.

“We simply don’t have the medications or the medical technologies that work so all of these other entities step in to fill that gap and charge people money.”

Given the industry was reportedly worth billions, it should be funding robust randomised controlled clinical trials, Dr Whittle concluded.

According to one cryotherapy clinic, the freezing treatment “stimulates the temperature receptors, prompting the brain to transmit messages throughout the body – scanning all areas that may not be working to their fullest potential.

“Upon exiting, blood is pumped vigorously around the body, which in turn enhances the oxygen supply and removal of toxins. The cold also triggers the nervous system to release feel- good endorphins with the body’s natural anti-inflammatory response to extreme cold resulting in pain reduction. “

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