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Bad Ragaz offers patients a frosty welcome

Bad Ragaz is even colder than the Antarctic (AP Photo/Tony Karacsonyi) Keystone

The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth is minus 89 degrees Celsius in Antarctica.

This content was published on December 29, 2003 - 12:15

Yet this is a balmy paradise compared with the extreme cold therapy endured by swissinfo’s Vanessa Mock in Bad Ragaz… in her swimsuit.

I have always loathed the cold and found it unimaginable that people would willingly brave temperatures of minus 110 degrees Celsius in the belief it would do them some good.

So when I arrived at the Cristal medical centre in the spa resort of Bad Ragaz in eastern Switzerland, my mind was made up: I’d sit snugly and watch as patients entered and emerged – if they ever did – from the cold chamber.

But I was eventually won over by the smiling rheumatologist at Cristal who looks after patients of Whole Body Cryotherapy (WTB). Most of them suffer from muscular and skeletal problems - like me - or respiratory and skin disorders.

“Most people react very well to the cold and they even get a bit of a high after it,” encouraged Daniella Bachmann.

Probably from the sheer relief of still being alive, I muttered.

Bone-chilling

The treatment works by cooling down skin temperature to about zero degrees, blocking the skin’s pain receptors and providing instant pain relief that lasts several hours. It also increases blood circulation in the muscles and reduces inflammation.

A minimum of nine treatments, lasting up to three minutes each, are needed for long-term pain relief, explained Daniella.

I changed into my swimming costume, trainers, thick gloves, nose mask and headband.

Clothing is kept to a minimum to prevent a damp layer of air forming around the skin. Bachmann said this would feel far colder than the dry air being blasted around the chamber.

I peered into the chamber through a small window used to monitor patients; it was not an inviting sight. It looked as if there was a tempest of icy, white clouds blowing inside a giant refrigerator.

There was an eerie whirring sound and occasional wafts of bone-chilling air whenever the main door was opened.

”Don’t be nervous – you can always run out,” Jodie Wildhaber, a patient, told me. “It’s been fantastic for me. It’s allowed me to cut my pain medication for my rheumatoid arthritis in half.”

Deep freeze

It was time to brave the first chamber, set at a bracing minus 40 degrees to help the body acclimatise to the deep freezer beyond.

Daniela told me to keep jogging on the spot in the small room to keep the blood pumping around the body.

“Very chilly, isn’t it?” I shouted over the noise of the fans and motors.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Jodie and Daniela shouted back.

After 30 surprisingly tolerable seconds, Daniela opened the heavy door into the tiny, second chamber, set at exactly minus 113 degrees.

The noise was deafening. A white icy blizzard hit me and I starting jogging feverishly on the spot out of sheer panic. Within five seconds, I feel tiny icicles form around my nostrils and on my arms and legs.

“Just keep jogging and moving,” Daniela advised. I picked up the pace.

“You’re doing very well, already one minute down… one minute and thirty seconds.”

Struggle

I was determined to last two minutes but as the seconds dragged on, I felt my breath getting shallower and I began to struggle.

“Just another five seconds – three, two, one!” We sprinted out. My body had turned bright red and tingly, and I quickly put on a sweater. But the pain was gone.

After the cold treatment, I was whisked off to a yoga class for stretching exercises.

“We’ve been offering cold treatments for three years and we’ve seen a very positive effect on our patients,” said Esther Laubcher, a physiotherapist at Cristal and self-confessed cold chamber addict.

“Even people without pain come here, because they find it lifts the mood and helps them with sports training. My husband pops in every day!”

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock in Bad Ragaz

In brief

The Cristal medical centre is the only place in Switzerland to offer Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) to ease chronic pain arising from bone or muscular conditions. It is also used for asthma and depression.

A recommended course of nine treatments, each lasting up to three minutes, costs SFr360.

WBC was conceived in Japan in the 1970s but developed in Germany, where there are dozens of cold chambers.

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