The Quackometer is far from perfect. Sometimes quackery slips though its little webbed feet and I need to update it. Often a story in the paper requires a little more dissection to reveal its inner quackery.
So, today we hear that standing in a freezer can improve your health. Daily Mail reporter, Barney Calman, freezes his bits off as a piece of investigative journalism into whole-body cryotherapy. This is a technique that claims to cure a whole host of problems by allowing yourself to stand in a freezer at -120C for a few minutes. Funny, the chickens I put in the freezer never appear to get any better.
As is often the case in the Daily Lunacy, the article is a thinly veiled piece of advertorial for a new business in Battersea, the London Kriotherapy Centre, which charges £300 pounds for the benefit of sticking you in its deep freeze.
The newspaper article looses all credibility when it describes how the technique works.
Cryotherapy apparently shrinks the molecules in the body and then, when you emerge from the cold, the molecules then expand, increasing the blood flow which then helps ease pain and swelling, as well as fighting inflammation.
Anyway, poor reporting does not mean that there is no merit in the claims that getting your extremities cold very quickly can help with:
rheumatism and osteoporosis to multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome and depression, and even … as an anti-cellulite and skin-firming treatment.
So, what evidence is there that this is an effective treatment for illness and injury? Well, pubmed is the place to look. A search for crotherapy and sports injury reveals a study entitled “Does Cryotherapy Hasten Return to Participation? A Systematic Review.” This concludes, that whilst the technique may work, the studies that show an effect are of “low methodological quality” and,
Despite the general acceptance of cryotherapy as an effective intervention, evidence on which to base these conclusions is limited. Only with strong randomized, controlled clinical trials will we know the true efficacy of cryotherapy.
People report pain relief for this sort of activity. Studies show that this may indeed be true, but that there is no evidence that this has any long term benefit. It is easy to see how endorphins released during the process of freezing your skin off may temporarily take your mind of your back pain or arthritis. People report similar effects from saunas or even having needles sticking in them. This does not mean that the technique is cost effective (would a locally applied ice pack do just as well?) or have any lasting effect beyond the immediate relief. People who report long term effects may just be confusing a general remission with treatment effectiveness or be suffering from plain old wishful thinking. That is why controlled and blinded trials are so important.
Of course, the Daily Wail backs up its claims with anecdotes (why trust any authorities?) and so acts as a good free advertisement for the Kriothrapy clinic. (Why am I thinking of Krusty the Klown?) I bet they were popping the ice-cold bubbly there today.
Depressingly, and despite showing a few signs of critical thinking, Barney ends his article on a completely credulous note:
I have suffered from eczema around my eyes for four years; I use a medicated cream daily to stop flare ups, but remarkably, since having cryotherapy it’s been itch and pain free. I’ve not needed to use my medication for the first time in a year and a half.
As bizarre as whole body cryotherapy sounds it’s worth remembering that commonplace alternative treatments such as reflexology, acupuncture, massage and osteopathy, now available on the NHS, were once considered ‘loony’ and ineffectual.
A future blog entry will be on the NHS and their State Sponsored Quackery. Just because they have a web site about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) does not mean that these techniques are not loony and ineffectual.