Cryotherapy piece from 2006

April 30, 2008

Examiner journalist
Michael Moynihan with Rachel Maguire (top left) at the Cryotherapy chamber at White’s Hotel in Co Wexford. Temperature in the chamber plunges to minus 110 degrees centigrade, more than 20
degrees colder than
temperatures faced in the Antarctic.
Pictures: Des Barry

Sixty degrees below zero is a dull thump that reminds you why God and travel agents invented sun holidays, as Michael Moynihan found out this week

You should be looking forward to it, it’ll be some experience,’ says the
professor. ‘Like your wedding night

YOU know your place when you spend Thursday morning in
minus 100 degrees celsius.
Wearing your swimming togs.
Nothing shrinks the ego like a sub-sub-Arctic chill. As I trudged around the cryotherapy chamber, several questions jostled for attention in my mind: is this the coldest place on earth? Why does the boss hate me so much? And when in the name of
Jesus am I getting out?

Cryotherapy is based on the same principles that suggest ice is good for injuries, lowering the temperature to help the tissue recover. White’s Hotel of Wexford, which has opened the only cryotherapy chamber in Ireland, brought over Professor Winfriend
Papenfuss to explain the science.

“It’s used more for chronic diseases in Germany and Austria,” said Papenfuss, a dapper German in his 70s.

Cryotherapy is used to treat
chronic pain in the joints, skin
diseases, muscle problems and so on — as well as to treat sports injuries and to improve athletic performance.

“Cold has a distinct effect on the nervous system compared to heat. Generally speaking, heat reduces the activity of the central nervous system while cold increases activity. If activity is low, cold increases it, while if activity is unnaturally high, cold reduces that activity. For instance, people suffering chronic sleep disorders because of over-activity in the central nervous system sleep much better after cold therapy because activity levels in the system are reduced.

“That’s one reason, but there are others: you can’t treat chronic inflammation with heat, that’s widely accepted, and that’s why we use ice packs on injuries. Heat would inflame those injuries even more, while cold reduces the inflammation. For elite athletes who are injured with muscle and joint problems — not broken bones — and who want to rehab, then two or three sessions a day for two weeks immediately afterwards will get the best benefits.”

Dr Liam Hennessy, fitness advisor to the IRFU, was also on hand to show how the Irish rugby team had been using cryotherapy for the last six years in their training camps in Spala, Poland. He acknowledged that it had required a change in attitude: when the cold chamber had first been mentioned, the IRFU medical committee had asked who’d be responsible if one of the players ended his days as a
human Choc Ice out in Poland.

Which brought me back to the good professor. Clearly nobody could survive for prolonged periods at minus 110 degrees, not even super-fit professional athletes, so how long should an out-of-shape journalist spend in the chamber? “Elite athletes can spend five minutes in the chamber, while most people spend two to three

Clearly I didn’t look convinced.

“You should be looking forward to it, it’ll be some experience,” says the professor. “Like your wedding night.”

Invited to compare my wedding night with a sub-freezing hell-hole of cold and discomfort, I declined.

THERE are three chambers involved in the cryotherapy experience. Two of them warm you down for the deep freeze: you enter and head left through one little room which is –10 degrees, into another room which is set at –60, and then you hit the cryotherapy chamber proper, which is –110 degrees. To put that in context, the
coldest recorded temperature on earth occurred in Antarctica: 89 degrees
below zero, or ‘moderate to fresh’ as we cryo-veterans describe it.

Before entering there was an
interesting exchange with Rachel Maguire, who works in the spa.

“Take off the wedding ring, that could freeze to your skin.”

“Okay. The glasses?”

“Those as well.”

“How about if I had an earring?”

“That’d have to come off as well.”

“I was told not to shower, why’s that?”

“If there’s moisture on your skin it’ll freeze and burn.”


After having my blood pressure taken it was down to the swimming togs, boots, gloves, face mask and weird headband. I almost refused the headband until I remembered the not-very-funny-at-all sensation of freezing ears and stuck it on. I could live with the Bjorn Borg comparisons.

Then it was time to go in. There was another vic- er, patient, Sam, but we didn’t get into second names. You can’t get too attached when you’re heading into deep freeze, not when there’s a chance one of us may not come back.

Melodramatic? I’d have thought so until I saw the ice lining the window looking into the coldest chamber, which made me feel like Tom Crean just before he pulled on his boots for an Arctic stroll.

The first nasty shock comes in the –10 degrees chamber. You’re so focused on the big chill two doors away you forget that if Ireland suffered temperatures of 10 degrees below zero the entire nation would grind to a halt. Minus 10 is not nice. Minus 10 hurts.

But if minus 10 is bold, like a cheeky teenager, minus 60 is humourless and bullying, like the teenager’s older brother. Who knows kick-boxing.

Sixty degrees below zero is a dull thump that reminds you why God and Joe Walsh invented sun holidays.

But even after all that, minus-110 degrees is still like nothing else. There’s a complete physical shock: when you dive into a swimming pool you’re immediately aware of being immersed in another element, and the cryochamber is like that. The cold is palpable, like a live thing in the room with you, a
giant with a dainty touch idly lifting every hair on your arms and giving each of them a little tug upwards — while also pressing your shoulders down towards your chest. There’s a conscious effort required to stop yourself heading back out the door to the tropical heat of minus 60 degrees.

An even more immediate sensation is awareness of your lungs like you wouldn’t believe, as if you just swallowed a bag of frozen eels. Though the attendant will tell you to take deep breaths, it’s a struggle: you’re as conscious of the furthest reaches and crannies of your lungs as if they’d just been installed, and the overwhelming message being sent up to the brain is to keep that freaky weird air out at all costs because it’s TOO COLD TO BREATHE, OKAY?

THE CHAMBER is small – four people would be a crowd – but you’re advised to walk around, so we started moving, and once you start moving you notice something: it’s a dry cold, just like you’ve been told.

On the face of it, the news your -110 degrees is a dry cold sounds about as comforting as the news the shark about to eat your foot is on the endangered species list. But the fact it’s dry means while it’s bitter enough to get between your ribs, it doesn’t make you sodden and miserable.

By the way, the above all entered my mind within the first 30 seconds of arrival in the chamber. Time hasn’t been that elastic since I had occasion to sit through Charlie McCreevy’s budget statements in a previous job, but unlike those occasions, I didn’t play great LPs in my head to pass the time (It’s difficult to remember the third song on REM’s first album when you’re shouting “JESUS!” or “AAAAAH!” or “I mean, JESUS!” every 10 seconds. Which I was).

I was also worried about Sam, trudging ahead of me. If he fell down I didn’t think I’d be able to drag him out. Hard lines, I thought, he knew the risks coming in here. With my eyes beginning to close up — I think the eyelashes were starting to freeze together — I wondered if Scott of the Antarctic had felt like this when he and his men got lost. What cheered me up immensely was the thought that the temperature was over 20 degrees colder in the chamber than anything Scott had ever faced (Ha! In your FACE, Scott of the Antarctic!).

Then I glanced down and realised that even though he’d been notoriously unprepared for the South Pole, at least Scott and his colleagues hadn’t tried to survive the harshest
environment on the planet in a pair
of red and white Marks and Spencer
swimming togs.

This plunged me into such gloom, I was glad of the face mask; anyone looking in would have seen my delight turn to misery so quickly they’d have dragged me out on hard evidence of cold-induced mood swings.

Three minutes isn’t long, of course, and eventually we heard ‘30 seconds’ being announced through the intercom. Not before time, too. I wasn’t losing the will to live, but I was losing the will to shout obscenities at the top of my voice, which as an indication of my state of health is pretty foolproof.

BACK OUTSIDE the air was warm. I didn’t get a rush of endorphins or
anything, but the faint prickling along my arms and chest wore off very quickly. We were told not to have a shower for at least 40 minutes, as our skin was so cold we might overcompensate with the hot water and burn ourselves.

On the way out, Des the
photographer made a face.

“The light’s not right with some of these pictures. Do you think you could hop back in for a minute or two?”

My answer wasn’t couched in
language Scott of the Antarctic or Tom Crean would have approved of.

But they would have understood.


4 Responses to “Cryotherapy piece from 2006”

  1. […] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptWhite’s Hotel of Wexford, which has opened the only cryotherapy chamber in Ireland, brought over Professor Winfriend Papenfuss to explain the science. “It’s used more for chronic diseases in Germany and Austria,” said Papenfuss, … […]

  2. The style of writing is quite familiar to me. Did you write guest posts for other bloggers?

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