Heat & luck (22.01.2019)
A while back, I mentioned to a friend that my right hand & arm feel a bit better – for an hour or so – each time I use the sauna at my gym. Even though the rest of my body doesn’t like such hot temperatures, the disease affecting my right arm seems to crave strong heat.
She must have remembered that comment, because her Christmas gift to me was a half-day pass to a ‘Scandinavian spa’ in the downtown area; about a half-hour from where I live.
Did I mention that she’s an absolutely fantastic friend? (Thanks, Fee!) These types of spas are also called nordic baths or spas, or hydrotherapy centres; if you’ve been to one of those, it’s the same thing.
My physiotherapist loves these centres, so I’d heard a lot about them from him. In fact, he’d been encouraging me to try one for almost a year; he was convinced it would be good for my rare disease.
“The concept is simple really; you start up by working up a sweat via a steam room or sauna to simulate cardiac function and promote blood circulation.
You then move onto plunging your body into a cold temperature; whether it is a frigid river, chilly waterfall, rain shower or even the snow. This cold water closes the pores, reduces inflammation and boosts the immune system by stimulating circulation.
The final step of the Nordic spa cycle is to allow your body to relax for anywhere from 15-20 minutes. The body will regulate itself back to normal and your mind and body will feel clear and rejuvenated. Repeating this cycle… is the best way to get the full benefits”(1).
I already had an appointment at the hospital this afternoon, not very far from the spa, so decided last week that I’d use my spa pass this morning. This centre opens early, so I planned my travel to be there by 0830.
Then it turned out to be a very cold day here today, with a windchill – or RealFeel – of -35°C (-31F); a perfect day for some heat treatments!
My physiotherapist had warned me not to let any cold water touch my right arm during the cold part of the spa cycle. That’s because my right hand & arm are affected by Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), a rare neuro-inflammatory & autoimmune condition.
CRPS has many different symptoms, including several distinct kinds of pain. The worst neuropathic (nerve) pain, along with swelling and other problems, is often triggered by cold temperatures. So it made sense to keep that part of my body away from the cold water!
So… How was it, the nordic spa? It was very restful & relaxing. I enjoyed it even more than I’d expected to, really. First off, because they don’t allow cell phones & digital devices inside the spa area; they’ve made it a ‘quiet zone’.
With all the noise & distractions in day-to-day life, it was nice to hear only the sounds of water; drifting over an indoor waterfall, lapping over the edge of the heated pool. The muted hum of whispered conversations.
It was also nice to have different heat treatments to try, at different temperature levels; a very warm heated pool, a hot & dry (Finnish-style) sauna, and an extremely hot steam room.
Because it was my first visit to this type of centre, I’d been told to try the heat treatments in that order; to work my way up to the hottest one, the steam room. And to not stay in any of them for more than 10 minutes.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the steam room. I don’t usually feel well in moist heat, like the extremely hot & humid weather we have here during the summer months. But their steam room felt fantastic – for about 10 minutes! For the time I spent in that room, it was almost as though I didn’t have CRPS anymore.
After each heat treatment I’d stand under the ice-water shower for just a second, keeping my right arm completely out of the spray. Then I’d put their bathrobe over my bathing suit, have a glass of water, and go ‘rest’ for 15 minutes on a bean-bag; with a blanket over me. The last part of the cycle.
All in all, it was a very relaxing way to spend a morning. And my disease symptoms did seem better while I was there; the entire place is kept very warm, as their clients are wearing only bathing suits & bathrobes!
But as I was getting ready to leave, to head over to the hospital, I couldn’t help but think about why I was there on a weekday. Because I’m on medical leave from work, as a result of some new CRPS symptoms.
Stopping work – even temporarily – was something that I’d told myself, when I was first diagnosed with CRPS, just wouldn’t happen to me. I’d been certain that I’d be able to keep working, at a job that I’m passionate about; in biomedical ethics, or bioethics. So it’s been a shock, to find myself not working for a few weeks.
Yet this wasn’t a sad or depressing thought. There’s a French expression that sums up my situation well: “Chanceux dans sa malchance”. It translates, roughly, to: “Lucky despite their bad luck”.
The bad luck is that I developed CRPS, after a simple broken arm. No one knows why, or how. But my good luck with CRPS, for which I’m thankful each day, is that I have two wonderful medical teams helping me.
One team is a group of specialists at a large university health centre; its multidisciplinary pain management unit. The second, very small, team is made up of my family physician and my physiotherapist. I see each of them at a small clinic, about halfway between my home & my workplace.
Despite their differences, each team is committed to doing what’s best for me, for my health. And to finding solutions, ways for me to deal with this disease. Neither team has given up on me, on this notoriously difficult to treat disease.
So I see myself as “Lucky despite my bad luck”. And on top of that, I have my husband, family, and friends; all their support & love. So many people with chronic diseases are alone, or isolated, and I know that I’m truly blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life.
Including a friend who listened, and remembered, when I mentioned once that heat helps with CRPS. And then gave me a gift of heat treatments!
It’s almost time for my hospital appointment, so it’s time for me to sign off now. Thanks for reading!
(1) Caitlin Agnew. “The perfect winter pick-me-up: the Scandinavian spa circuit of hot soaks, cold dips and saunas”. The Globe and Mail. 23 Jan 2018. On-line. Accessed 22 Jan 2019. Web: