Icy pain relief: Shelburne Falls woman turns cold shoulder to meds to treat connective tissue syndrome and fibromyalgia

  • Carin Wales of Shelburne Falls is immersed up to her neck in the icy Deerfield River in Charlemont as part of her regime to ease chronic pain, which also includes breathing exercises. A rubber duck thermometer is attached to her wrist. STAFF PHOTOS/PAUL FRANZ

  • Carin Wales of Shelburne Falls breaks through a thin layer of ice on a pool of the Deerfield River in Charlemont. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Wales gets ready to take the plunge into the Deerfield River in Charlemont recently. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Carin Wales of Shelburne Falls stands in the sunlight after soaking in 34.3-degree water in Charlemont. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • An icy bath in the Deerfield River in Charlemont helps Carin Wales manage her systemic pain. She’s been taking a daily dip in the river for several months now.

  • Carin Wales of Shelburne Falls gets out of the Deerfield River in Charlemont after soaking for almost 10 minutes. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 1/19/2021 3:55:23 PM

As she waded into the water, barefoot and in a bathing suit, Carin Wales leaned over and used her hands to break through the thin sheet of ice that had formed atop the still water of the Deerfield River.

“I’m so glad we have ice on the top,” she said, slowly submerging herself from the neck down. She kept only her hands above the surface, and checked the rubber duck thermometer attached to her wrist.

“34.3 degrees” Fahrenheit, she read.

Earlier this month, the 26-year-old Shelburne Falls resident was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a group of disorders that weaken the connective tissues of the body, according to the Mayo Clinic. In 2017, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by sleep, memory and mood issues.

“My body is falling apart from the inside out,” Wales said. “They check my brain and my heart every four months now.”

For the last few months, wading in the shallow waters of western Massachusetts rivers and creeks has been Wales’ preferred method of daily pain management. Both of her diagnoses, she explained, mean she suffers from chronic pain.

“(Doctors) put me on muscle relaxers; they put me on antidepressants … because they dampen your pain center in your brain,” she said. “But antidepressants have other side effects, and I’m not depressed.”

Wales added that she found doctors were hesitant to prescribe opioid medication for chronic pain relief because it would require lifelong use.

“I was just desperate,” she said.

And then, she discovered WimHof, the Dutch extreme athlete and founder of the WimHof Method — a combination of cold exposure and breathing techniques.

“If you watch him — he seems crazy, insane, but … what he preaches is that he’s not another level,” Wales said. “He’s really trying to get people to see that if you start doing this stuff for yourself, you will find something about it that helps you.”

So Wales — who’d grown up on the river, having lived in Charlemont and previously worked for several years at Zoar Outdoor — gave it a try.

“I went into the water both really trusting this river — I love this river, I really do — and searching for something to break the s*** that my life turned into so quickly.”

It wasn’t long before Wales was spending five to 10 minutes in the water daily.

“In terms of fibromyalgia symptoms, probably about 70 (percent) to 90 percent are eased by this, and the EDS stuff goes down, too,” she said. “Across the board, it helps. So I’m going to keep doing it.”

She said her boyfriend has joined her — though he doesn’t spend as much time submerged as she chooses to — and so has her mother.

“People who know me, know this is not out of character,” she said.

Wales said she thinks it’s easy for people to be skeptical of Hof, but she emphasized that the cold water is only half of what he’s about.

“It’s not just that I’m walking in the cold water and hoping everything’s going to be better,” she explained. “I’m doing the breathing — I’m focusing really intensely on how that’s affecting my system, and how to heal my system with water.”

Breathing exercises

The breathing technique, as explained by WimHof, is a series of exercises in which the individual first inhales and exhales 30 times in quick succession — almost like hyperventilating, Wales said — followed by holding one’s breath for a measured period of time.

According to his book, “The WimHof Method Explained,” the breathing exercises are intended to help one gain control over “a range of physiological processes in the body,” in particular the autonomic nervous system, by releasing carbon dioxide from the body and increasing the amount of oxygen consumed.

Over the years, the WimHof Method has been met with skepticism from some and praise from others.

In a 2018 Healthline article providing an overview of the method — written by Emily Cronkleton and reviewed by Dr. Debra Rose Wilson — Hof is said to have gained credibility through working with scientists to prove his methods are successful in bringing about health benefits.

In particular, Cronkleton referenced a 2017 case study of Hof, which found “he is able to tolerate extreme cold by creating an artificial stress response in his body.”

“Scientists believe the brain rather than the body helped Hof to respond to cold exposure,” the article reads. “The study suggests that people can learn to control their autonomic nervous system to bring about similar changes.”

Still, the article advised seeking medical advice — particularly for those with respiratory problems such as asthma, or who have high or low blood pressure, are on medications or at risk for stroke — before attempting anything that might be considered dangerous or extreme.

Wales emphasized that people don’t have to take a dip in the icy river to experience the benefits of cold exposure.

“People can do it in their showers; people can do it in their bathtubs,” she said. “Yes, this is an extreme with the pain I’m in … but I think there’s a piece of this that everyone would benefit from.”

For Wales, it was the answer to pain management she had been looking for.

“It took one time to prove that the pain relief was real,” she said. “And I would much rather come and do this than be popping pills.”

Wales’ journey can be followed on her Instagram page, @swimawaythepain. 

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne

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