The big freeze

Tue, Nov 13, 2012, 00:00

We may not have had the warmest summer on record, but when I recently found myself shivering in temperatures of minus 110 degrees, the traditional Irish summer seemed positively tropical.

Having accepted a challenge to try out one of only two cryotherapy chambers in Ireland, I agreed to endure four and a half minutes in a frozen chamber at Shannon Cryotherapy Clinic, Co Clare.

I have long suffered from lower back problems and Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) has been proven to reduce inflammation and, in turn, ease the pain of conditions such as mine.

Freeze away the pain

This cold therapy treatment, which originated in Japan in the late 1970s, is becoming increasingly popular with athletes and professional sports people. So I had high hopes for freezing away the pain in the State’s only designated cryotherapy clinic in Ennis (there is also a chamber in White’s Hotel in Wexford).

Though I had been warned about the cold, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the experience of parading around the frozen chamber dressed in a bizarre combination of shorts, vest and slippers, topped with two pairs of gloves, a woolly hat and a face mask.

When so attired, I joined two other brave souls as we limbered up for a taste of the Arctic.

My comrades-in-arms were more sensibly clad in trainers and socks but as I was also suffering from a condition called plantar fasciitis (a painful swelling of the tendons in the base of the foot), I was advised to take my affected foot out every so often and wiggle it about for 10 seconds.

In response to my question about whether my toes would fall off from frostbite, owner of the clinic, Anthony O’Looney, assured me that wouldn’t happen.

Ominously, he added that it would not be advisable to expose them for longer than 10 seconds at a time.

Reducing inflammation

Physiotherapist and co-owner of the clinic, Brian Enright, says that WBC works by reducing inflammation at the very core of the body. “We’ve seen that WBC has the effect of dramatically reducing inflammation, thereby giving a pain-reducing effect,” he explains.

“It has the benefit of deep penetration of cold to muscle fibre and joint space, thereby helping to reduce haematomas [soft tissue bleed] and, importantly, decreasing rehabilitation time in both sports clients and the public.

“After undergoing WBC, physical therapy can be advised as muscles and joints are in general more pliable and flexible, in a way easing a client into a treatment,” he adds.

Gulping with trepidation

With no time to dwell on the prospect of losing a fraction of my extremities, the door to the outer chamber was opened and I followed my fellow freezers into a small room which was kept at a constant minus 60 degrees.

We were met with a whoosh of cold air and what looked like freezing fog and I gulped with trepidation as we headed into the deep freeze.

Before entering the main section, a 20- second warm-up (or should I say cool down) is required – and in temperatures of minus 60, I found it extremely difficult to imagine how anything could be colder.

But before I had time to answer my own question, a voice over the intercom told me to open the door to the inner chamber – there was no going back.

Bracing myself, I marched into a tiny room which was 50 degrees colder than the one I had just experienced.

Unfathomable temperatures

It is difficult to describe what it feels like to be walking around half naked in unfathomable temperatures, but suffice to say it was essential for us to talk gibberish for the four minutes and 30 second stint in order to try to take our minds off the hostile environment.

Round and round we went, moving our arms up and down and wiggling our fingers in time to the piped music.

Depending on your tolerance and level of injury, session times can last from one minute to four minutes and 50 seconds. It is not advisable to stay in the chamber for longer than five minutes and anything over eight minutes can cause death.

Trying to banish this thought from my mind, I concentrated on the knowledge that I could walk out of the chamber at any time. But I was determined to finish the session even when after about three minutes, my skin started to burn.

Final countdown

Just when I reached the point where I couldn’t bear it any longer, the final countdown was announced.

This wait was agonising and felt like the longest 30 seconds of my life – but I gritted my teeth and kept going. After what seemed like an eternity, my time was up; I pushed the door open and with a rush of freezing air, was back in the land of the living.

I had survived the coldest place on Earth.

After a five-minute warm-up my body began to thaw and I felt great – invigorated, energetic and totally proud of my achievement.

The following day, I felt revitalised and the persistent pain in my foot had completely disappeared. My back is more complex, but I have definitely seen some relief and am planning to return for more freezing.