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Doctor Curmudgeon® Brrr! Brrr! And More Brr!

By Diane Batshaw Eisman, M.D. FAAP Doctor Eisman is in Family Practice in Aventura, Florida with her partner, Dr. Eugene Eisman, an internist/cardiologist

I have no idea why people do this.

My mind boggles at the thought of it.

My body shivers when I read about it.

It is simply beyond my comprehension.

Scattered throughout the United States and Canada, there are groups called Polar Bear clubs. And these indomitable and brave people enjoy plunging into icy water in the middle of the winter season.

Being born and raised in Chicago, I first became aware of this bizarre sport when I read about the Chicago Polar Bear Club.

From their website: “A polar plunge is simple: participants jump into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan, while raising money to support local families in need.”

The Chicago Polar Bear Club began life as the Lakeview Polar Bear Club and the website states: “LPBC was born in late 2001 when Brian Marchal decided that he wanted to join a polar bear club and jump in Lake Michigan…on January 1st, l 2002 the humble beginnings of the LPBC were born when a group of 3 people jumped into Lake Michigan.”

Lake Michigan and I are on familiar terms and so I shudder as I read those freezing words.

But my home town did not have the first idea to do these plunges.

Canada has been diving into icy cold water since 1920 when Vancouver’s annual swim club began their dips.

New Zealand enjoys (if that is the appropriate word) polar swims in many areas of their country.

The Netherlands has their New Year’s Day dive into many lakes in their country.
Of course, Antarctica would take the plunge! Wikipedia says, “A polar plunge is also held every midsummer in Antarctica-a rite of passage for scientists and visitors to New Zealand’s Scott Base. It is held in late December.”

And it behooves me to quote from the website Weather & Climate about December in Antarctica: “You can expect very cold maximum daytime temperatures of around -18°C (-1°F) and nighttime temperatures around -23°C (-9°F).”

Somewhere, tales have filtered through to me about members of these courageous clubs feeling invigorated.

With exercise, neurotransmitters can be released making people feel good. Is this what happens with those freezing immersions? More likely it is the exercise rather than the freezing water that leads to their release.

When I think about the plunges, I am concerned about the possibility of provoking a heart attack or stroke in vulnerable people.

The cold shock response could lead to a sudden increase in heart rate and blood pressure.

And, indeed, this can be very dangerous. Laura Williamson wrote in the American Heart Association News, “…health benefits of cold therapy remains scant. Experts caution that for some people, shocking the body with cold water could do more harm than good…The National Center for Cold Water Safety warns that sudden immersion in water under 60 degrees Fahrenheit can kill a person in less than a minute.”

There is some evidence that troponins, those proteins released into the blood when there is heart damage, have a higher level in those who take these icy dips.

And medicines used to treat high blood pressure can make it much harder to adapt to a sudden drop in temperature.

But there are those who are really, truly committed to being a polar bear, and, hopefully, they will actually consult with their own physician..

And I hope those polar plunges have warmly garbed doctors present at the site.

For me, winter in a cold climate brings thoughts of sipping hot chocolate…not leaping into icy water.

Dr. Curmudgeon suggests “Bitter Medicine”, Dr. Eugene Eisman’s story of his experiences–from the humorous to the intense—as a young army doctor serving in the Vietnam War.
Bitter Medicine by Eugene H. Eisman, M.D. –on Amazon

Doctor Curmudgeon® is Diane Batshaw Eisman, M.D., a physician-satirist. This column originally appeared on SERMO, the leading global social network for doctors.
SERMO www.sermo.com

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