A 26-year-old woman presented to an urban Detroit emergency department complaining of bilateral foot pain after walking outside in the snow for 30 minutes without shoes or socks. She was unable to ambulate secondary to the pain and swelling. Physical examination revealed bilateral pallor, doughy texture, and coolness to the touch. There was generalized tenderness to palpation throughout the digits. The overlying skin was edematous, although without signs of breakdown.
Background on Frostbite
Frostbite is a commonly encountered chief complaint during the winter months. It affects many groups of people including mountain climbers, “weekend warriors”, intoxicated individuals, those with underlying psychiatric impairment, and the homeless population. Frostbite is treated with warm water immersion in a circulating bath at water temperatures between 37 and 39 degrees C. 1 There are multiple commercial whirlpools available for reheating, however they cost thousands of dollars and are unfortunately unavailable at our institution.
Trick of the Trade: DIY Circulating Water Bath
We therefore created a whirlpool using a plastic tub, a sink with a faucet and a portable thermometer (Figure 1). The patient was placed on the standard gurney and placed adjacent to the sink. The tub was placed into the sink and filled with water until the monitored temperature was 37-39 degrees C using the hot and cold levers. Once the temperature was stable, the patient placed both of her feet into the warm water to begin re-warming. With the tub placed in the sink, there was continuous movement of water with the overflow going down into the sink drain. This effectively creates an immersion circulating water bath. This technique could be used for any body part that is easily placed into a sink and can be done with supplies readily available in most departments.
This period of re-warming takes approximately 10-30 minutes and should continue until the tissues are more pliable and distal erythema returns. 2 Our patient’s feet were rewarmed in our make-shift circulating bath. Her pain improved, the tissues became more pliable, and gradually the distal erythema returned to her toes. She was admitted to the hospital for a period of observation and pain control and was ultimately discharged following an uncomplicated course.
Take Home Points
- The treatment of frostbite includes warm water immersion at water temperatures between 37 and 39 degrees C.
- You can create a make-shift circulating bath using supplies that are readily available in most emergency departments: a plastic tub, a sink with a faucet, and a portable thermometer.
- Other important considerations for frostbite treatment include prevention of tissue refreezing 1–3 and adequate pain control during rewarming.