After the accidental death of a spa worker in Las Vegas last year, cryotherapy’s image transformed overnight: going from hot new beauty treatment to dangerous, extreme practice.
If you read beauty magazines or blogs last year—or even watched the evening news—you probably heard about it: Chelsea Patricia Ake-Salvacion, an employee of a Las Vegas spa, was found dead in its cryotherapy chamber, which she apparently had entered alone after hours. The next morning, she was found curled up on the floor of the chamber, frozen.
Her beyond-horrific death has led to calls for new safety protocols for cryotherapy, a rapid deep freeze of the body (developed in Japan and popular throughout Europe) that purports to improve sleep, increase metabolism, reduce inflammation, and burn up to 600 calories, all in under three minutes. (Daniel Craig added it to his regimen for getting his ripped Bond bod, and top models Crystal Renn and Maryna Linchuk tout it, too.)
And the Nevada health department is conducting a broader investigation of cryotherapy, which could lead to some of the first regulations of its kind worldwide.
“When you’re dealing with extreme temperatures, there is little room for error,” says Heather Mikesell, editor of American Spa Magazine. “The fact that it’s getting such buzz these days also means you’ve got spas and other facilities jumping on the bandwagon. Unfortunately, that increases the danger factor because many employees don’t necessarily have the knowledge or experience needed to operate and monitor a cryotherapy chamber.”
(To be clear, though, in this case: The county coroner ruled Ake-Salvacion’s death an accident, Las Vegas police say no crime is suspected, and state Occupational Safety and Health investigators said she should not have been using the cryotherapy chamber after hours.)
Deep freeze 101
Cryotherapy, which has not been approved for medical use by the FDA, can seem a bit extreme—this is a no mere post-game ice bath, or cold plunge at the spa.
You enter a chamber of liquid nitrogen (ever have warts burned off by a dermatologist? That stuff) that’s been chilled to negative 264 degrees Fahrenheit, and your skin temperature cools to as low as 32 degrees, in minutes. The short duration keeps your core warm and minimizes discomfort, while stimulating the cold receptors of the body, proponents say: Blood rushes from your extremities, causing an endorphin surge, reduction of inflammation, and a recharging the adrenal glands.
Basically, fans of the procedure say it tricks your body into hypothermia without those pesky drawbacks like frostbite or death. And it has a lot of fans.
“Other bodywork is about unblocking energy, realigning, or strengthening,” says award-winning dancer and choreographer Stephen Petronio, who recently began visiting KryoLife in Manhattan. “This is kind of a workout for your circulatory system.”
The artistic director of his own dance company, Petronio trains every morning (weightlifting, swimming, Pilates) and then conducts four-hour rehearsals. “I’ve been dancing for 40 years. Inflammation is no stranger to me. [Cryotherapy] has my joints feeling great, and my metabolism is tripped off. I’m buzzing when I get out. I feel super consolidated, pulled together.”
My experience with the big chill
During my own visit to Kryolife last September, the cryotherapy chamber (which looked like something out of a cheap ’50s sci-fi film) was cold, but not painfully so—as if I stepped outside in my underwear on a brisk alpine night. But slowly, over seconds, I did feel a burning sensation on the backs of my arms and nipples.
Afterward, in the small waiting area, I chatted to two other clients. One man said the therapy was helping him with his arthritic knees, and a woman, who was warming herself back up on a stationary bike, comes every week. “It’s really helped me with my depression, most of all,” she said, smiling.
I felt an effect as well. That day I was more awake and felt brighter, and later, when I went swimming, I churned through the water with an extra boost of energy. That night, I fell asleep early, for the first time in weeks.
How is KryoLife dealing with the fallout from the tragic mishap in Las Vegas? The company—which plans to open a location in the chic Flatiron District in early March another in Greenwich, CT, later this year—is touting its safety protocols.
Technicians are carefully selected and trained to adhere “to the medical-grade safety standards employed by prescribing physicians in Europe,” explains CEO Joanna Fryben. “In the extremely rare incident that both technician and client are simultaneously incapacitated, our machines are programmed to automatically power down after three minutes.”
For spas like KryoLife, government regulation may not change things at all. But spa owners (and cryotherapy fans) should keep an eye on Nevada: New regulations could set a precedent that puts the industry’s freewheeling deep-freeze days behind it—for good. —Mike Albo