REBECCA ROBERTS, HOST:
Dathan Ritzenhein was the first American marathoner to cross the finish line at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, coming in ninth overall. Now he's training for the 2012 Olympics in London with help from his sponsor Nike. His Nike training includes something called whole body cryotherapy.
DATHAN RITZENHEIN: It blasts every once in a while. So like, every, you know, 20 seconds or so maybe, it blasts a shot of cold air, and it'll go up, and then it'll kind of come down a little bit. And it's really cold.
ROBERTS: Here's how it works. You stand in a cylindrical chamber for about two and a half minutes - one athlete compared it to standing in a giant Red Bull can with your head poking out - then hyper-cold air is released all around your body, bringing the temperature down to as low as 300 degrees below zero. It's a similar concept to an ice bath, but the benefits, many athletes say, are far better.
Texas Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson is a regular, and several members of the Dallas Mavericks credit this year's NBA Championship win in part to their cryotherapy treatments. But the results are still largely anecdotal.
DOUG CASA: A lot of the companies that have these extremely expensive, you know, 20, $40,000 cryotherapy units, they don't really have a lot of evidence to back up beyond the anecdotal reports from the athletes.
ROBERTS: That's kinesiology professor Doug Casa from the University of Connecticut. Casa doesn't see much of a difference between ice baths and cryotherapy chambers in the results that each provide. Eric Rauscher disagrees. He's the managing director of Millennium Ice, a company that manufactures whole body cryotherapy chambers here in the U.S. Rauscher believes that his cryo chambers offer athletes benefits that far exceed those of an old-fashioned ice bath.
ERIC RAUSCHER: Because we're taking skin surface temperature to 30 degrees in less than a minute, the body literally gives up trying to regulate skin surface temperature, instead drawing the blood to the core to protect the core. So while that blood is rotating through the core, it's picking up oxygen, enzymes, nutrients, all the things that the body needs to survive because it's in this fight or flight mode now where it feels like it's in massive distress.
It's really not, but it feels like it. So that when you step out at the end of two and a half minutes, now the brain, via the nervous system, is going to scan the body and say, "OK. Who needs this blood first?" And in the case of, say for instance, the Dallas Mavericks who we were dealing with during the playoff run last year, fatigued muscles in the legs were getting oxygen-rich blood; they were stepping out of the device essentially with instant recovery effects.
ROBERTS: Have you tried it?
RAUSCHER: I have, quite a bit. I'm actually in a regimen right now where I'm using it every other day over the course of a month, so about 13 to 14 treatments.
ROBERTS: What does it feel like?
RAUSCHER: It's cold. It's really, really cold.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAUSCHER: There's no other way to explain it, although I've done an ice bath, and it takes everything I have to get in an ice bath. It takes everything I have to put my ankle in a bucket of ice. And this, although it's cold, it's not that excruciating cold that an ice bath feels like.
ROBERTS: Now, there were pictures of track star Justin Gatlin with frostbite on his leg. It doesn't do tissue damage?
RAUSCHER: What happened with Justin is he got in the device with wet socks.
RAUSCHER: And obviously, if you're going to step in the device with wet socks, you're going to do some damage. But even then with Justin, what happened was a little bit of a blistering effect, no frostbite or any permanent damage.
ROBERTS: A lot of the research, to the degree that there's any research on the benefits of it at all, is not American. Why do you think that's true?
RAUSCHER: It's brand new. It's brand new to the United States. As Americans - and I make this same mistake. We sometimes think that we're always at the leading edge of all the latest therapies and medical discoveries, and we're simply not.
ROBERTS: Do you worry this is a fad?
RAUSCHER: You know, that was my probably number one concern going in, was it's just, you know, it's the placebo effect. You feel like you're good so you are. And we spent four to five months really validating that part of it. I wanted to make sure that the track and field athletes were truly recovering and weren't just getting out of it, feeling good for an hour, and then later on, you know, the recovery was gone.
And every single athlete that we worked with told us that it produced a change, it produced a recovery like they hadn't felt. I really don't feel like it'll be a fad and that it'll be - you'll see this in training rooms around the country.
ROBERTS: That's Eric Rauscher. He's the managing director of Millennium Ice, a company that makes whole body cryotherapy chambers here in the U.S. Eric, thanks so much for joining us.
RAUSCHER: Absolutely. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.