Cold is new hot for cryo fans
In a CRYO chamber, liquid nitrogen cools the skin in a three-minute treatment.
Be like Mike? Maybe. But these days, an impressive segment of consumers wants to instead be like Kobe Bryant — or Cristiano Ronaldo, the soccer superstar — and incorporate cryotherapy into a regular wellness routine. That’s exactly what entrepreneurs like Kai Stubbe are banking on. Stubbe is co-founding partner at Dubai-based CRYO Stay Young, one of the companies making inroads in the United States with cryotherapy franchises.
What is it?
Cryotherapy translates to cold therapy—the use of low temperatures to treat inflammation and sore joints. Kevin Kramer, co-founder and COO at Davis, California-based US Cryotherapy explained the cold essentially stimulates the body’s central nervous system into releasing endorphins and dopamines and promoting vigorous blood flow.
This basic mechanism is agreed upon by all cryotherapy practitioners. Brian Balli of CryoFit, an Austin-Texas based cryotherapy franchise, points out that whole body cryotherapy was developed in 1978 by a Japanese physician, Toshima Yamauchi, to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The treatment is also popular in Europe. Until very recently its use in the United States has been restricted to sports medicine and training with occasional use at spas and salons.
The American Center for Biological Medicine states cryotherapy has been “developed as a treatment for surgical recovery, chronic physical conditions, increasing athletic performance and decreasing muscle recovery time, weight loss, improving skin tone and texture, treating anxiety and depression, as well as psoriasis and fibromyalgia.”
While this list is long and impressive, it should be stressed that cryotherapy franchises vary in what they tout as the treatment’s benefits. Kramer, for example, makes it clear that none of US Cryotherapy’s centers promise medical cures, while Balli of CryoFit does say their treatments promote weight loss as a result of increased metabolism.
Ice pack on steroids
The differential in temperature that is called for as part of this procedure is achieved through one of two ways at U.S.-owned and operated franchises: walk-in electric refrigerated chambers (such as US Cryotherapy) or chambers using vapors from liquid nitrogen to achieve the dramatic cooling (examples include CRYO and CryoFit).
Treatments don’t last more than three minutes and Balli and Kramer emphasize it’s only the skin temperature that drops; the body’s core remains at its normal temperature throughout. “CRYO is basically an icepack on steroids,” Stubbe said, “Wherever you used an ice pack, CRYO uses Europe’s most advanced technology to recreate its effect by intensifying the impact and decreasing the uncomfortable feeling of water on your skin.”
While liquid nitrogen is a highly corrosive material, Balli points out that staff is well trained in handling and safety procedures and that customers don’t come into contact with the actual liquid. The chamber has “a vapor circulating around the body. The liquid nitrogen in the machine is converted to a vapor. It’s an extremely fine mist you can’t hardly feel the weight of it,” he said.
Typically a customer enters the cold chamber and the degree of discomfort just lasts seconds after which it feels energizing, Balli said. “The country is primed for this,” he added. “People are really looking for alternative therapies to ease their pain and discomfort rather than just popping another pill.” An introductory cryotherapy session at CryoFit can cost $40, after which discounted packages and monthly memberships are available. CryoFit has two location in Texas, and is interviewing franchisees for additional units.
At US Cryotherapy, a walk-in session costs $45. Most members upgrade to a package or recurring monthly membership ($129 to $169 per month). The company is expected to add seven new locations by March and two to three company-owned locations. Revenue at large centers in mid-sized markets is $750,000 annually estimated, and $350,000 for small centers in small markets.
Under the microscope
Not all cryotherapy franchises explicitly tout medical benefits, but those that do can expect the Food and Drug Administration to take a look at these claims, especially in light of an October 2015 death of a woman in a cryotherapy tank in Nevada.
Deborah Kotz, a spokeswoman for the FDA, said she couldn’t comment on future actions the agency might take with respect to cryotherapy, but shared its current position on cryotherapy devices: “The FDA has not cleared or approved any whole body cryogenic devices. Cryotherapy machines intended for use in the prevention, treatment, or mitigation of disease, or intended to affect the structure or function of the body, are medical devices regulated by FDA,” the statement said in part.
“The FDA is more likely to regulate a product if the claims are medical in nature, but is less likely to do so if the claims are non-medical in nature, such as comfort or support,” pointed out Christopher Mikson, litigation and dispute resolution partner at Mayer Brown’s Washington, D.C., office.
Chip Paul, founder of e-cigarette company Palm Beach Vapors, is very familiar with the FDA regulation process. “First, regulation is not a bad thing,” he reminded fellow franchisors. “It is there for a good reason: to protect the consumer. If you are operating a good business and providing good products, FDA regulation should not scare you. Secondly, make sure that the FDA is armed with the proper facts as they make their decisions.”
This is exactly what cryotherapy franchises are looking forward to doing. “We are operating under highest European safety standards ... and we would appreciate a regulatory acknowledgement that guarantees certain cryo standards in the industry,” Stubbe said.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Jeff Reeh, CEO of CryoFit acknowledged. “The bad thing that will happen is that you will have regulatory review and the added bureaucracy and the reporting that it requires. The good thing is that it will probably open up your market to a wider range of people.”
Kramer is confident that cryotherapy is poised to move beyond the sports arena and become part of the alternative approach to wellness. “As consumers increasingly take charge of their own health and pay out of pocket for acupuncture and chiropractors, we see that they are looking for holistic benefits,” Kramer said, “This is where cryotherapy comes in.”