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Freezing yourself to help heal yourself: The NFL goes cryo

ROYAL OAK, Mich. -- The shivering starts in the last minute. That’s when the cold -- minus-256 degrees Fahrenheit and falling -- really sets in. The tick, tick, tick of the digital countdown clock in front of your face can’t move fast enough. The red digital temperature reading stares back, confirming the insanity.

You’re in basketball shorts, tan hospital socks that go a third of the way up your calf, black slippers and black fluffy mittens. Every other part of your skin is exposed as the bursts of air hit you. Vapor hovers at the top of the machine, just below your face. If you blow on it, it can create a cool smoke effect. But it’s also really, really, really cold.

Why would someone subject themselves to this type of torture -- you’re literally standing in a chamber that looks like a pod -- in a deep freeze long enough for Usain Bolt to run the 100 meters almost 19 times. It doesn’t cease. When the temperature creeps up a little bit, another frigid blast comes in. It’s three minutes of, depending how one reacts to cold, your own personal hell trying like heck to freeze you over.

It can drop as low as minus-300 degrees in some machines, more than 150 degrees colder than the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth. Some athletes love it. Well, after the first time they go in.

“If I’m going to be honest, it was really cold, obviously,” Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate said. “And my nipples felt like razor blades. They really hurt. That’s probably what I remember the most. But afterwards I felt good. Once you get out, you’re happy.”

Using a cryosauna chamber is one of a few different types of whole- or partial-body deep-freeze cryotherapy. Whole-body cryotherapy requires wearing a mask to cover the nose and a headband to cover the ears while a person is completely immersed in the cold. Partial-body cryotherapy has the head outside of the machine, meaning covering the ears and nose is not necessary. It’s still ridiculously cold. But it has been increasing in popularity among professional sports stars worldwide. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have used it, as have a host of international soccer players.

And during the past year, more NFL players and teams seem to be interested. Some teams, like New Orleans and Tampa Bay, have machines installed at their team facilities. A survey of NFL Nation reporters showed at least 15 teams either have the deep-freeze technology on site or have players who will go off-site to use private facilities.

The Lions had a portable one brought in by former center Dominic Raiola during training camp. Raiola, who in retirement became a co-owner of Cryospa Detroit, a cryosauna facility, saw Lions players hustling to one of his locations and then try to make it back for meetings and practices. So he chose to bring it to them instead because “it made it more convenient to let them use it after their meetings and at night before they went to bed.”

Tate and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata went in daily. Defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker would go back to the team hotel and sometimes use it three times a day. All three said they plan to use it even though it won’t be as convenient now that camp has broken.

“I’m just really open to anything that’s going to help me feel better, help me work out better,” Ngata said. “I’m really open to anything, and once I started cryo, I felt better every time. More and more I started doing it, the better I felt, so I just continued to do it.”

Ngata said the pain in his lower back subsided. His joints felt good. And now he’s hooked, sometimes choosing to use it bracketing workouts. Cryospa's claim benefits include calorie burn, anti-aging and, most important for elite athletes, inflammation reduction and decreased recovery times.

Multiple online abstracts in the United States National Library of Medicine offered mixed results on how much whole- and partial-body cryotherapy at extreme temperatures helps with recovery and inflammation reduction as opposed to a typical cold tub. And it is definitely more expensive than a cold tub.

It may just come down to time and convenience -- three minutes rotating inside the machine, powered in part by liquid nitrogen or another cooling agent, versus 20 minutes in a tub. That, more than anything, might be more attractive to athletes.

“When you get in the cold tub, typically when you get out you have to go take a shower,” Lions defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. “With the cryo, you get out of it and you just go about your day. There’s no drying off. There’s no being wet.

“It’s just a personal preference.”

Zach Goetz, a former trainer at D1 Detroit who co-owns Cryospa Detroit with Raiola, said the business gets a lot of “thrill-seekers” because they’ve seen athletes like James do it. But then, if they feel good, they return. Prices for sessions vary on the machine and the cryotherapy spa, as they have popped up in cities across the United States.

“Sometimes the long-term benefits take multiple visits in order to see the actual benefit,” Goetz said. “People with arthritis or swelling typically see it immediately. Just kind of depends on how in tune you are with your body.

“If you don’t have a good grasp on what’s going on physiologically or medically, then you’re not going to really understand what happened. You feel cold then you feel warm and then you feel good. You can’t really put two and two together if you’re not really in tune.”

It’s also a practice the United States Food and Drug Administration recommends you discuss with your doctor before you try. As of July, the FDA had not regulated whole-body cryotherapy and continued to have questions about what the practice is really capable of doing.

“We simply don’t know,” FDA scientific reviewer Anna Ghambaryan said on the FDA website. “At this time, there’s insufficient publicly-available information to help us answer these questions.”

Ghambaryan also said on the FDA website that while there are questions about the benefits of cryotherapy, risks of asphyxiation, hypoxia, frostbite and burns exist. Lightheadedness, if you breathe in too much of the oxygen being pushed up in the chamber, can be a side effect. Prolonged exposure could result in skin discoloration or frostbite, Goetz said, and it might not be the ideal recovery method for people with heart, lung or circulatory conditions. Former Cleveland Cavaliers guard Manny Harris suffered freezer burn on his foot in 2011 after going into a machine with a wet sock.

To avoid frostbite on extremities, users are required to wear dry mittens, socks and slippers before entering the machine. Patrons of the machines -- at least at facilities owned by Goetz and Raiola -- are constantly monitored throughout the three-minute sessions for safety and can get out at any time if they are not feeling well.

While there are concerns, some athletes find a variety of benefits, including improved breathing.

“I’m always trying to get an advantage, you know,” Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones said. “I think the thing that it does that people don’t realize is that it helps you breathe a lot more. It also takes away the soreness and just does a lot of stuff that the cold tub does a lot quicker and also helps with your breathing.

“I’m always trying to get an upper hand on how I can perform better and keep my body well.”

Jones uses it twice a week, going in for a three-minute session, resting for 45 minutes and then doing another three minutes. He became so interested in the technology he said he became an investor in a portable machine a year and a half ago, and now multiple Bengals use it. Goetz said machines cost between $45,000 and $75,000 each, depending on the unit.

With more players using the technology and with the emphasis on the speed of it, why haven’t more teams adopted deep-freeze therapy yet? Cost might be a factor. So might convenience and the FDA’s concerns.

Tate estimates around 20 Lions players used the machine when it was at the team hotel. That number could drop now that they have to go off site to use the machine. Jones, Ngata and Tate, however, said they’d be for it if their teams wanted to install them, although they acknowledged those decisions are made at levels much higher than them.

“It definitely helps. I think it’s great to have it available,” Tate said. “Now, can I say out of 53 guys, 53 guys are going to use it? Maybe. Maybe not. But for me and the guys that I’m around, it definitely helps.

“Our bodies are everything in this sport. We need them, for now and later.”

And in football, where injuries are constant and careers are often short, players are looking for anything they can find to help themselves recover as fast as possible. For some, that means stepping into a deep freeze.