My cheek pressed to the cold steel of the examining table, I strained to determine just what the various doctors grouped around my posterior were thinking when they peered down at my butt cheeks. Or should I say, specifically, the left butt cheek. Was it shingles? A rash or crazy allergic reaction? After taking photos and poking and prodding me, as well as bringing in the inevitable grad student to see the spectacle, the doctors finally diagnosed frostbite.
Yes, a frost-bitten bum. I’ve seen enough medical dramas to realize that the doctors were probably snickering about the whole incident and that my poor bum was the “butt” (pun intended) of the ER jokes that evening. Apart from the humiliation, there was also the pain itself. I now know that frostbite feels like a very bad sunburn. Indeed, whenever I sat down, my bum screeched, “noooooo!”
My “frozen” saga started when I was searching for alternatives to my traditional acupuncture to combat a sore knee. My doctor had advised me to stop running, which was simply not an option as I was too uncoordinated to do anything else. I’d seen the word “cryotherapy” pop up several times in my search for remedies for joint pain so I investigated further.
What I learned is that cryotherapy is the use of “a brief and intense exposure to extreme cold” that triggers the body’s natural healing process. LeBron James and a number of elite athletes supposedly used it for performance recovery. Mark Wahlberg was also a fan and had even talked about it on “Ellen.”
If it was good enough for LeBron and Marky Mark, cryo was good enough for me. Plus, the Web descriptions also gushed about additional benefits such as increased energy, an improved immune system, and a revved-up metabolism.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a fitness center just a couple of miles from my house that housed a cryotherapy booth and eagerly signed up for a treatment on the spot. I wasn’t sure what to expect but the clinician administering the treatment reassured me he would be in the room with me during the three-minute session.
Essentially, you strip down to nothing except for gloves and big, thick socks to cover your extremities. Next, you step into what looks like a stand-up tanning booth where the treatment consists of blasting liquid nitrogen mist with an average temperature of -185 degrees for three very cold minutes. Your head is above the booth so you can talk to the clinician the entire duration of the treatment as well as escape the fumes. And, boy was I glad someone was in the room with me. Ninety seconds into the treatment, I was so cold, I started asking the clinician to count down the seconds and distract me with jokes, music — anything!
For the last 15 seconds, I slowly rotated 360 degrees until the booth shut down and the mist subsided. The technician threw me a robe, which I could barely get on, my teeth were chattering so hard. I finally stepped out of the booth, flexing my fingers. I started to say I didn’t think the cryo had any effect when I realized I could turn my head easily for the first time in months. In addition to sore knees, I also had neck spasms from being hunched over a computer every day. Gleeful, I turned my head like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist,” delighted by my newfound mobility. While I was getting dressed, I babbled to another woman changing in the locker room on how successful I thought my first treatment was (she had been thinking of it herself). As I walked out to my car, the feeling slowly returned to my reddened fingers. The next morning, humming the theme to “Rocky” I banged out three miles on my treadmill at a good pace – no knee pain. Sign me up for my next treatment!
I’m not sure what went wrong in cryo appointment #2 — the technician was a different person but the process was the same. But this time my numbness never subsided. In fact, I woke up the next morning dreaming I’d been sleeping on a bed of hot, prickly peppers. Both butt cheeks throbbed but ultimately, the pain and redness subsided from the right side while the left side looked like someone had squashed a red tomato on me. I tried to ignore it for another 24 hours but the pain jolted me awake every time I put any weight on my left side. I googled the side effects of cryotherapy and called the fitness center, which wasn’t particularly helpful. No — no one had a reaction such as mine. No, there were no side effects — the worst scenario was that cryotherapy didn’t have any effect at all. The redness should subside, etc, etc. Could it be something else?
Wondering if the rash was just coincidence, I headed into the ER. The receptionist didn’t seem to understand me when I said I willingly exposed myself to extremely cold temperatures and I thought I’d burned myself. Again, I explained the process to the nurse, who also had never heard of cryotherapy. Finally, the doctor came in, accompanied by a dermatologist and the poking and prodding began.
While the doctors conferred about next steps, I googled “frostbite,” pulling up all sorts of terrible pictures of mountain climbers with blackened fingers and toes. The dermatologist still seemed puzzled as to how just that area was the one affected but reassured me that the frost burn was superficial and would go away. I ended up getting painkillers and a nasty-smelling cream to accelerate the healing process.
Some months later, I’m happy to say, I have “let it go,” — the redness is gone although my left leg is a bit paler than the other. And, while the beneficial effects of the cryo lasted exactly two weeks, I’m now faced with finding another pain remedy that won’t freeze my ass off!
This author, and her bum would like to remain anonymous.