Does Cryotherapy Help Treat Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain?

The FDA Hasn’t Given Its Approval

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has weighed in on cryotherapy as well, with a statement to debunk claims by some spas that cryotherapy had gotten the agency’s nod: “In fact, not a single WBC device has been cleared or approved by the agency in support of these claims,” the agency noted.

Further, the statement noted the lack of strong science: “Given a growing interest from consumers in whole body cryotherapy, the FDA has informally reviewed the medical literature available on this subject. … We found very little evidence about its safety or effectiveness in treating the conditions for which it is being promoted.”

When asked what happens physiologically — to your heart, blood pressure, and other bodily functions — when exposed to such extreme cold, an FDA scientific reviewer responded, “We simply don’t know.”

Cryotherapy Treatment Takes Place in a Small Tank

In a cryotherapy spa, you wear minimal clothes and are exposed to the cold by standing solo in a tank that covers everything but your head. Or, in some places, you enter a specialized room with several other people. A substance such as liquid nitrogen is pumped in, but since it turns to gas when it is frozen, you don’t actually feel it.

What you do feel, according to people who have tried it, is a sensation of a blast of cold air, then the chattering of your teeth as if you were outside on a frigid day, to several seconds more when your body starts to feel like an icicle.

There’s Probably Little to No Downside — Except That WBC Treatment Is Not Cheap

Daniel Muller, MD, a rheumatologist at UCHealth in Fort Collins, Colorado, and a coauthor of the book Integrative Rheumatology, says it’s unlikely that severe negative effects would result in people with RA from the few minutes of exposure.

For most people, he says, the biggest risk is likely to your wallet, since most cryotherapy treatment centers recommend you go several times a week for an extended period of time, and the payments will add up fast.

People with severe Raynaud’s syndrome, a comorbid condition to rheumatoid arthritis, in which small blood vessels in the fingers or toes constrict when exposed to cold, should probably stay away, Dr. Muller advises.

If You Want to Try Cryotherapy, Look for a Reputable Place

If you do decide to try it, look for a cryotherapy spa with a lot of positive reviews on ratings sites. You might also ask about the medical training of the owner of the spa. Because no credentialing is currently required, owners can range from someone with a formal medical degree (the ideal) to someone with absolutely no medical knowledge.

There are dangers to going to a place that doesn’t take safety seriously. In 2015, a young woman who worked at a cryotherapy spa in Las Vegas died after going into the whole-body cryotherapy chamber after hours. She suffocated, although exactly how that happened has not been determined. The state of Nevada promptly shut down that spa.

Whole-Body Cryotherapy Risks and Potential Problems

In its statement, the FDA cited potential hazards from the treatment, including:

  • Frostbite
  • Burns
  • Eye injury
  • Oxygen deficiency
  • Asphyxiation

Talk to Your Doctor Before Trying Cryotherapy

It’s always a good idea to discuss therapies like WBC with your doctor before you try it. And as with all complementary approaches, it should never be done in place of treatment options with established records of safety and effectiveness.

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