Cryotherapy, cool treatment or hot air?

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- Marc TongVan knows how to take a punch. He's a professional mixed martial arts fighter.

A woman uses a cryosauna at Eastern Iowa's new cryotherapy center, 40drop.

And as brutal as his job looks, Marc said it's the training that really takes it out of him.

"It's physically demanding, and mentally,” said Marc. “We're constantly training. There's one day we'll work cardio. The next day we're working strength and conditioning. To balance that out, we need time for recovery."

But, Marc doesn't have a lot of time to wait for that recovery. He's constantly looking for ways to speed things up for a leg up on the competition.

His latest attempt is something that's gaining popularity across the U.S. It's called "whole body cryotherapy".

Advocates allege some big names think it's pretty cool. LeBron James, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, even 007-- Daniel Craig-- are all said to have used it.

"I've heard of various fighters around the world using this treatment,” said Marc. “Cedar Rapids didn't quite have it."

It does now. Marc started treatments about a month ago at Eastern Iowa's first cryocenter, 40drop, which opened up two weeks prior.

"Through some market studies,” said Todd Diestler, 40drop’s owner, “we identified cryotherapy as a growth business."

Todd is the owner of 40drop and what’s called a cryosauna. The former math teacher felt this part of the state needed one.

"Business has been good,” said Todd. “We've got a little bit busier every week."

The clients coming in are there to treat a variety of conditions. According to 40drops website, the cryosauna can have some remarkable effects. Boost weight loss. Wrinkle reduction. Decrease anxiety. Better sleep. Relief from joint and muscle pain.

"I think that from what I've seen in the first six weeks we've been here, the applications are wide," said Todd.

Here's how it works. A customer strips down to underwear. They hop in the machine, which uses liquid nitrogen to cool the air inside the tube. For up to three minutes, users stand in temps near 250 below zero.

"Just imagine going outside with no clothes on," said Marc.

Todd said the goal is to drop a person's external body temp at least 20 degrees.

"The response that we're trying to elicit from your body is to act like it's freezing to death," he said.

The belief, that'll force the body to restrict circulation to the limbs and keep the blood focused on protecting the core and vital organs. Once treatment's over, and customers get out, the body starts to warm up. The circulatory system allegedly dilates, increasing blood flow.

"That's kind of where the magic happens," said Todd. “If there's inflammation or lactic acid built up, or other toxins built up in your system, it's going to help push that stuff through."

Not to be cold, but scientists have claimed whole body cryotherapy may not be able to do all some say it can.

In July, the Food and Drug Administration published a warning, telling people "beware of misleading claims" about the practice. It said the FDA hasn't cleared cryosaunas as safe or effective.

Also-- after reviewing the medical data out there, the FDA found "very little evidence about its safety or effectiveness" treating the conditions being advertised.

"There's been several large studies looking at the effectiveness of cryotherapy, mainly in athletes, but also in some general populations,” said Dr. Andrew Peterson, team physician with Iowa Hawkeye Football. “We haven't seen any big differences between using cryotherapy or no treatment at all."

Like Marc, Dr. Andrew is also looking for ways to improve player performance and recovery. But, unlike Marc, Dr. Andrew doesn't see the benefit of whole body cryotherapy. He said the evidence isn't there--- and so neither will the team be.

"If there were papers that came out that showed this was an effective way to help athletes recover from their training sessions better, that they'd be able to accumulate more load over time, then, maybe we'd start doing it. But, until that evidence exists, we're not going to be."

The doctor does admit some evidence shows cryosaunas can reduce inflammation and alleviate joint pain. Stuff he said an ice pack could probably do just as well.

Plus, you don't have to spend much. Whole body cryo treatments can cost up to $325 for, unlimited monthly use.

"I've been amazed," said Todd.

If you're thinking Todd is going to dispute everything you just read, you'd be wrong. He too is skeptical of some of the more out there cryosauna abilities.

Todd will admit he's not a doctor and has only anecdotal evidence as to his machine's effectiveness. But, like Dr. Andrew suggested, Todd has seen a lot of positive results when it comes to cutting down client inflammation and pain.

"Even in the absence of hard data, there are people at the very highest levels saying this helps them," said Todd.

At $30 for a first-time freeze, Todd is asking skeptics to try the cryosauna for themselves, draw their own conclusions.

Marc's sure glad he had a go. With repeated treatment, Marc said he's recovering from training quicker and feels crisper.

"I recommend it to someone like myself,” said Marc. “A high level athlete."