The last recourse you might consider for severe arthritis would be stepping half-naked into a freezer cold enough to bring on frostbite within minutes. But a growing number of Germans--not only arthritis patients, but also athletes and ordinary citizens--are spending time in so-called Kältekammer, or "cold chambers." Forget about jumping in the snow after a sauna. This is much, much colder--patients have to don gloves and face coverings and hop up and down to avoid frostbite at -110 degrees Celsius.
But 2 or 3 minutes in a Kältekammer provides temporary relief of arthritis pain, says Michael Hammer, head of the Rheumatology Clinic at St. Josef-Stift hospital in Sendenhorst. And, he says, numbed-out patients can better withstand physical therapy.
Hammer and his colleagues are now making cold chambers a focus of an International Symposium on Cryotherapy to be held at the Weserland Clinic in Vlotho, near Hannover, on 5 February. There, about 60 researchers and physicians will present papers on using the therapy to treat skin diseases, infections, and immune disorders, says University of Münster professor of medicine Reinhard Fricke, who introduced Germany's first cold chamber in 1984. Attendees will also form a new association: The International Society for Cryotherapy.
The Germans say cold therapy may work in part by boosting levels of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. "American colleagues laugh when I tell them about the positive effects," says Hammer. But one skeptic, diving medicine expert Ernest Campbell of Orange Beach, Alabama, calls cold chambers a dangerous fad. The shock will boost endorphins as part of a stress response, he says, but it can also bring on heart attacks and kidney failure in vulnerable people. Hammer counters that patients are prescreened for heart conditions: "We have never had such a problem in 15 years of Kältekammer therapy."