In the chronicles of unnecessary accidental deaths, this one stood out as particularly bizarre, and at first seemed to us to be unique. Here’s the story in the New York Times (use this Google Search for the title if you’re paywalled out):
Chelsea Ake-Salvacion, 24, accidentally died of asphyxia caused by low oxygen levels while in a cryotherapy machine at the Rejuvenice spa in Henderson, where she worked, the Clark County coroner’s office said. She was found dead on Oct. 20 after apparently using the treatment on herself the night before.
Her death drew scrutiny to the treatment that has been used worldwide but is not quite mainstream.
“Rejuvenice” eh? What in the name of Niffelheim does a 24-year-old need with rejuvenation (if it’s anything real) anyway?
So what is this cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy supporters claim it can ease pain and inflammation, aid blood flow and weight loss, improve skin and even ward off aging and depression. The treatment has been popularized by celebrities and sports stars who use it in lieu of a traditional ice bath. It can involve two- to four-minute exposures in a chamber the size of a telephone booth to temperatures ranging from minus 166 to minus 319 degrees.
Oh, OK, she died of quackery. That’s a lot less rare than we had imagined. Indeed, there’s a certain, shoulda seen this coming to a kid with a trendy first name and a hyphenated last name dying of a phony-baloney “therapy.”
Although any medical treatment involving cold is in-fact “cryotherapy,” this does not mean all forms of cryotherapy are a medical treatment. The term cryotherapy sounds science-y and futuristic but it is a very featureless description. The combination of science sounding terms plus imprecise meaning makes it a pseudoscience bonanza. Similar to the oft-abused physics term “quantum,” using the word cryotherapy gives the aura of scientific treatment. The sham uses of cryotherapy go far beyond any medical science or any plausible medical benefit. Internet searches for the term produce a multitude of expensive and useless treatments bearing the name cryotherapy. The most egregious one, in my opinion, is “Whole Body Cryotherapy” AKA cryosauna.
That last is what killed the young lady in question. Skeptoid has more details on why it’s quackery; read the link if you’re curious. We’ll just note he needs to update this paragraph:
Is cryotherapy dangerous? No. Although I looked through several databases, I could not find any incidents of harm related to cryosauna, except for minor frostbite issues. Essentially it has no greater risk of injury than an ice bath. Hypothermia is theoretically possible, as well as suffocation if the system malfunctions and introduces too much nitrogen. These things have never happened.
Never say “never,” not when you’re dealing with quacks and the people who fall for them.
Let’s move on to the Ockham-winning Quackometer, which says:
[W]hole-body cryotherapy… is a technique that claims to cure a whole host of problems by allowing yourself to stand in a freezer at -120C for a few minutes. Funny, the chickens I put in the freezer never appear to get any better.
As is often the case in the Daily Lunacy, the article is a thinly veiled piece of advertorial for a new business in Battersea, the London Kriotherapy Centre, which charges £300 pounds for the benefit of sticking you in its deep freeze.
The newspaper article looses all credibility when it describes how the technique works.
Cryotherapy apparently shrinks the molecules in the body and then, when you emerge from the cold, the molecules then expand, increasing the blood flow which then helps ease pain and swelling, as well as fighting inflammation.
Obviously, the science editor was having a day off. For that matter, anyone with a science GCSE was probably down the pub or at the dentists too, as this is just plain bollocks. Its possible to see where the confusion has slipped in here, confusing the thermoregulatory response to cold of vasoconstriction with some imagined molecular physics.
It may be bollocks, but it’s very cold bollocks. You might want to swaddle your brass monkey if you send him to cryotherapy.
Of course, a brass monkey, being deader’n disco to begin with, can survive just fine in the nitrogen-rich, oxygen-poor environment of a maladjusted cryotherapy cell. A human being, like a too-trusting young girl? No such luck. Whatever the magical benefits of cryotherapy, it doesn’t bestow on you the ability to survive systemic deoxidation.