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Icy welcome to new pain relief

February 2018

ice bath

Interesting news from researchers in the UK...evidently a short plunge in cold water can work as an effective treatment to combat serious pain.

Living with pain is never easy and strong painkillers can be addictive and their effectiveness can wear off with time. So any alternative is well worth looking at and researchers at Cambridge University together with scientists at the University of East Anglia are now pushing for more research into what is being termed cold water therapy.

This follows the experience of a 28 year old man who for medical reasons had had the nerves in his chest cut to help control the blood flow to his face. While it was a fairly minor keyhole procedure, there was slight damage to some nearby nerves and after the operation the man suffered serious pain.  Ten weeks later he was still in severe pain despite taking pain killers and seeing various experts.

As a keen triathlete and competitive swimmer, he decided to go for a quick swim in the sea to distract him from the pain. He jumped into the sea from a rocky outcrop at a place where he had swum before – the water was exceptionally cold. He said as he plunged in, his whole body tingled with the cold and then within a minute he couldn’t feel pain...or indeed much else.

But the surprising aspect was that since then, he has felt no pain whatsoever. The pain had gone before he got out of the water and has never returned.

BMJ Case Reports states that the results from the sharp plunge into cold water was an unexpected, immediate, complete and sustained remission of the persistent pain. Doctors believe that the sudden shock from the cold water may have disrupted the nervous system, stopping a cycle of pain.

In the past trials have been carried out on alternative therapy using fast changing temperatures to force tissues to adapt to sudden change. Using ice packs and then heating pads or dipping limbs into hot and then cold water is a technique that has been used by many athletes and today ice baths have been used by top athletes for various benefits. UK tennis star Andy Murray has reported that at Wimbledon he has two freezing cold dips a day, including an ice bath before he goes to sleep.

But an icy plunge to permanently stop severe pain has not until now been a key area of research and it is hoped more investigation will be carried out. The report did issue a word of caution, saying that without further evidence, it is unclear whether the exposure to forced cold water swimming was specifically the cause of the pain relief. The shock of the cold water might have induced a wave of sympathetic nervous system activity which altered pain perception. This could offer instant relief, but does not explain why the man’s pain disappeared completely over the long term.

The BMJ say that chronic pain affects between one third and one half of the population of the UK with figures likely to increase due to the ageing population. Any new treatments to alleviate constant pain will be welcomed by millions.


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