Polar plunges are fun and charitable. For many people, they can also be dangerous.

People who dive into near-freezing water make the most alarming facial expressions. Thankfully, in the case of the fundraising polar plunges organized each year by the Special Olympics, it’s all for a good cause. Milwaukee’s Special Olympics Polar Plunge at McKinley Marina raised $58,000 for the organization in 2016, when 278 brave souls splashed into water whose temperature hovered just above freezing.

Such cold water dips are popular, but statistics on the injuries they inflict don’t really exist. “There are thousands of people who do this every year,” says Gordon Giesbrecht, a researcher at the University of Manitoba and a leading expert on hypothermia and cold injuries, “and deaths are rare.”

One thing’s for sure: not everyone is cut out to be a gray surf gladiator. Giesbrecht says people with underlying heart issues, or other health problems, should probably avoid going polar, which he describes as “a fairly dangerous thing.” The cold water greatly triggers the body’s sympathetic nervous system, releasing adrenaline and greatly stimulating the heart, he says. “It’s somewhat the same as if I started sprinting.”

Even healthy participants face an increased risk of drowning, versus taking a dip during the summer. Jumping into cold water causes a strong gasping reflex, and if the plunger’s head is underwater, a mouth- or lungful of water could result. Therefore, plunges that involve cutting a hole in ice for people to jump through carry the greatest risk of drowning. Those like the Feb. 18 event and the traditional New Year’s Day plunge at Bradford Beach, where participants wade out from the shore, give the body more time to adjust, according to Giesbrecht.

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Both events staff responders in dry suits, ready to rescue any faltering plungers. Giesbrecht says that’s the leading safety measure, along with taking head counts. He would also advise people to keep those same heads above water, but doesn’t expect everyone to listen. Getting one’s hair wet is often a badge of honor and a sign of having fully plunged.

Meanwhile, the purported health benefits of plunging are open to debate. Many participants report feeling stimulated. “The Finns must know something,” says Giesbrecht, who recalls watching ice swimming in Finland, where the practice is a daily constitutional. “It’s invigorating.” ◆

‘Shock to the System’ appears in the January 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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