I’ve received an unusual number of Snapchats, texts, emails, and phone calls from friends and family in the last few days, all of them with questions about the tragic death of a young woman, Chelsea Ake-Salvacion, in a cryotherapy chamber near Las Vegas. Having tried cryotherapy once, I am apparently the resident expert in my social circle. (Naturally, I documented my experience in an article for Allure.) As someone who froze herself willingly, I’ll admit that I was shocked by the story but not totally surprised. Cryotherapy is very rarely deadly, but that doesn’t make it inherently safe, either. And Ake-Salvacion’s death is bringing to light some of its risks.
Proponents of cryotherapy swear that a few minutes in a chamber chilled by liquid nitrogen to below 200 degrees Fahrenheit heals aches and pains, boosts your immune system, burns calories, and can even help with anxiety and depression. Experts told me that the treatment can theoretically remedy aches and pains, much as an ice pack would, by relieving pain and inflammation. (At nearly $90 a session, though, it’s a really expensive ice pack). As for the other claims? There’s just not enough scientific evidence to back them up.
Despite that, athletes have been doing cryotherapy for a while and celebrities have recently jumped on the bandwagon. Its popularity is exploding and more and more “cryospas,” like the one where Ake-Salvacion worked in Henderson, Nevada, are popping up around the country. But since these chambers are not classified as medical devices, they are not watched over by the FDA or any other regulatory body.
As for the risks, Houman Danesh, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and rehabilitation medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, told me that unless you’re “asthmatic, have poor blood flow, or heart conditions, cryotherapy is relatively safe.” Anyone with a preexisting condition should proceed with caution, but it’s worth noting that the extreme cold constricts blood vessels, which can be a problem for people with undiagnosed conditions as well.
When I tried cryotherapy, I never once worried for my safety. I filled out a lengthy health questionnaire before the operator allowed me to enter the device. He stayed with me the whole time, asking me how I felt and talking me through the discomfort. According to reports, Ake-Salvacion was one such operator at her cryospa, but she made the decision to go into the chamber by herself at closing time, without someone to keep an eye on her. The coroner reports that she died within minutes and then continued to freeze for nearly ten hours while the machine kept running.
Bottom line: We don’t yet know exactly what happened to Ake-Salvacion, but if you’re curious about cryotherapy, check with your doctor first before stepping into a chamber. And be wary of any place that doesn’t offer you a lot of supervision.
NEXT: Here’s What Cryotherapy Is Really Like