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Could cold water plunge provide pain relief?

Tuesday February 13th, 2018

Plunging into cold water could offer an alternative to strong painkillers and physiotherapy following surgery, it is suggested today.

Today’s edition of BMJ Case Reports, describes how a triathlete found that the searing pain from an endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy was only relieved after he jumped into very cold water for a swim.

Before then, he had endured ten weeks of severe pain that strong painkillers and physiotherapy was not able to relieve.

He described feeling no pain in the water and did not afterwards. His preoperative quality of life has been fully restored and he has resumed his usual sporting activities without further recourse to any painkillers, says the case report.

The authors, led by Dr Tom Mole, a psychiatrist at Cambridge University, UK, caution that this is only one case report and that there is no evidence that it was specifically the cold water that eased the pain.

However, they admit there are some possible biological explanations: the shock of the sudden cold water immersion might have induced a wave of sympathetic nervous system activity, which could have altered pain perception, thereby offering instant relief.

His reduced mobility might have contributed to his pain but when he plunged into the water, the pain relief he felt enabled him to move freely, thus breaking that cycle.

“Further prospective investigation is needed to assess the replicability and feasibility of forced cold water swimming as a potentially effective, natural intervention to enhance recovery outcomes from common postoperative complications,” they write.

Cold forced open-water swimming: a natural intervention to improve postoperative pain and mobilisation outcomes? BMJ Case Reports 12 February 2018; doi 10.1136/bcr-2017-222236 [abstract]

Tags: Fitness | Pain Relief | UK News

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