Icy debate over alternative therapies for athletes

By Erin Barney

Justina Di Stasio put on a surgical mask, cotton gloves, thick socks and rubber shoes. A tank top and shorts left her arms and legs exposed to -120 degree temperatures, and after only 30 seconds, she lost feeling in her muscles.

She went completely numb in the remaining two minutes of her cryogenic treatment.

“I was in there dancing around, suffering, and then there are just these European women sitting perfectly still like, ’Don’t touch me,’ just enjoying the moment,” Di Stasio said.

Di Stasio, 23, is an Olympic wrestler for the women’s Canadian team and has used cryotherapy to recover from weekly battles on the mat. Resembling a walk-in freezer, the cryo chamber is supposed to decrease inflammation and soreness in the body. Di Stasio said she’s not sure how much of the later she actually experienced, however.

“It’s the most uncomfortable reset button ever,” she said. “The pain before the numb part is so bad.”

Justina Di Stasio posted this photo on her Instagram account after she and her Canadian teammates moments before their first cryo treatment.
Justina Di Stasio posted this photo on her Instagram account after she and her Canadian teammates moments before their first cryo treatment.

Painful? Yes. Effective? Debatable.

Cryotherapy is just one of many alternative treatments elite athletes experiment with in their pursuit of a shorter recovery time. There will always be ice baths and floor stretching, but more athletes have become unsatisfied with the conventional. In their world, conventional means outdated. Conventional means second place.

“They are all looking for that one percent advantage. Anything to get a slight edge,” said Kevin Kramer, COO of US Cryotherapy.

The degree of that edge is undetermined. Athletes might swear by the advantage a subzero chamber can give them, but experts say the research hasn’t confirmed its benefits. Coaches and trainers are more fearful of than excited about the alternative world, so they generally avoid it altogether.

Kramer urges them to reconsider. Though it won’t repair a torn rotator cuff or un-blow out a knee, he said cryotherapy can absolutely accelerate the healing process.

The chamber drops below arctic temperatures, cooling the skin enough to trick the brain into a fight-or-flight response—flight in this case. Blood retreats away from the extremities and into the center of the body to protect its organs. The muscles are relieved of all toxins and other metabolic waste, then filled back up with nutrient-rich blood from the body’s core.

“The beauty of it is that it works for everyone,” Kramer said. “Everyone from top athletes to office workers can experience some tissue inflammation, and cryo can relieve that.”

Olympic track hopeful, Marcus Johnson, found that relief, and then some. Last year during his senior season at the University of California-Davis, he shredded his hamstring muscle in the middle of a meet. His trainer advised him to take his rehab beyond ice baths and explore cryotherapy. Johnson was back on the track at full-speed one month later.

“My doctor’s exact quote to me was, ‘I can’t believe you’re even running,’” Johnson said. “The ultrasound showed that my muscle was barely connected on the outside, and the inside was just a giant black hole of debris.”

Yet he has posted his fastest career times, completely pain free.

Johnson still pays weekly visits to the cryo chamber even though no one has been able to offer him a medical explanation for his miraculous results. Running without the agony of a threadbare muscle is all the motivation he needs to continue the treatment.

It’s elective for Johnson, but some athletes feel like alternative medicine is their only option. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has strict restrictions on simple, mainstream remedies like Tylenol. Female athletes, like Olympic wrestler Victoria Anthony, are even hesitant to take Midol because the caffeine component could be flagged for misuse in a drug test.

“I thought I was getting a sinus infection the other day, and I went to Walgreens and literally had no idea what I could take,” Anthony said.

Anthony, 24, takes vitamin C and magnesium to buffer her immune system, and gets deep tissue massages to flush toxins from her muscles. Though she’s never tried cryotherapy, she said if it weren’t for a lack of time and money, she would.

“I’m just realizing day-to-day, I have to be tuned into my body and pay attention to what I’m feeling and judge it like that,” Anthony said.

But what Anthony might decide her body needs is exactly what U.S. women’s wrestling coach, Terry Steiner, is hesitant to endorse. The fear of his athletes’ disqualification keeps him from from recommending medicinal cures, even if it’s a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency approved product. In his 14 years as an Olympic coach, he has seen pharmaceuticals and other unusual therapies cause more problems than they’ve fixed.

“Athletes get really rigid about the stuff,” Steiner said. “If they run out or don’t have access to treatments while traveling, it really affects them psychologically.”

Steiner and a team of coaches, nutritionists, physicians and psychologists customize delicately balanced health plans for each wrestler—which specifically exclude alternative medicines like cryotherapy.

“Outside information is awesome if it fits within a plan,” Steiner said. “But they get too many plans from too many different people that don’t work together.”

Craig Horswill, an associate professor of kinesiology and nutrition at UIC, said there hasn’t been enough positively resulting research in the world of alternative medicine, and often the risks are very high. He said the extreme shock cryotherapy subjects the body to could be fatal to users with cardiovascular and circulatory problems.

For elite athletes, disrupting the body’s natural rhythm might cause everything from dehydration to extreme fatigue when it comes time for them to preform.

“Blood flow is a tricky thing,” Horswill said. “When we exercise, rhythmic or isometric, blood flow is naturally increased. But increasing blood flow to everything like that is not what you want.”

Cryotherapy is also advertised as a means for weight loss, something that could be particularly attractive to a wrestler. The “flight” response triggered by the cold speeds up everything in the body, including the metabolism. However, in his research for the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, Horswill found that there is no such thing as a healthy quick fix for a wrestler who needs to make weight.

Becoming a human popsicle is no exception.

Dropping pounds of fat takes weeks, sometimes months, for athletes who don’t have a lot to lose. Instead, wrestlers layer up and sweat it out. But Horswill said lowering the body’s temperature that much would delay perspiration and probably cause the wrestler to overexert him or herself trying to get rid of excess water weight.

If there was convincing evidence of the safety and success of these shortcuts, Steiner said he would give them a more serious consideration. However, he’s not willing to gamble his athletes’ success on unexplored territory.

He’s happy to stick to his “old school” ways.

“You’re not always going to have everything you want or feel 100 percent,” Steiner said. “Ideally we want to, but we usually operate at a 70. The more comfortable we can be with that, the better off we’ll be in the long run.”

Photo at top: Trainers are always nearby to administer traditional first aid as necessary, but many athletes seek more novel treatments off the mat. (Erin Barney/MEDILL)