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Pain relief from cold water swim

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks
man swimming

13th February 2018 – A dip in cold water may offer an alternative to strong painkillers and physiotherapy, say researchers.

The suggestion is based on the experiences of a man who had severe post-operative pain but appeared to cure his symptoms by swimming in cold seawater.

Details have been published in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

Nerve pain

The 28 year old man underwent a procedure called endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy to curb excessive facial flushing. The operation involved cutting the triggering nerves inside his chest.

Surgery was successful but even strong painkillers including paracetamol, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, and opiate medication, did not make the pain go away. After 10 weeks of physiotherapy he was still unable to return to his previous regime of recreational sport.

A dip in the sea

Before his operation, the man had been a keen triathlete and had swum in open water. So, without telling doctors, he decided to try a cold water swim, if only to distract himself from the pain. "I wasn’t sure if it would help the pain," he later recalled. "I just wanted to do it. I thought at best it was a long-shot, but I was desperate to get some relief."

He went back to a stretch of coastline where he remembered swimming previously. It was a chilly day with the air temperature at 8C and the sea at about 11C.

The shore was rocky and he had to leap into the cold water. Once in the water his first thoughts were: "Damn this is so cold I’m going to die."

Then he swam – front crawl – for about a minute. "I had tunnel vision," he remembered. "For the first time in months, I completely forgot about the pain or the fear of shooting pains in my chest if I moved. My entire body tingled with the cold. I just knew if I didn't keep swimming, I’d soon freeze.

"After a few moments, I actually enjoyed it – it was just an immersive rush of adrenaline. I bet I couldn’t have felt my pain, even if I tried."

'The pain had gone – I couldn't believe it'

After clambering back on to dry land, he remained pain-free. "When I came out of the water, I realised the neuropathic pain had gone away. I couldn’t believe it."

Even more surprisingly, his chest pain disappeared and has never come back. He was able to come off painkillers and resume sport.

The authors, from the universities of Cambridge and East Anglia, say it's unclear how a cold water swim helped the patient conquer his pain. They suggest that sudden immersion in the cold water might have altered his perception of pain, offering instant relief. This in turn might have enabled him to move more freely, breaking the cycle of pain and reduced mobility.

They suggest that a cold water plunge might succeed where painkillers fail. However, they say more research is needed before recommending this course of action as their report is based on just one case.

The Outdoor Swimming Society cautions that swimming in temperatures found in UK waters for most of the year carries risk, including shock from sudden cold, cramp, and hypothermia. They say people should get expert medical advice before winter swimming if they have a heart condition, high blood pressure, asthma, or are pregnant.

Reviewed on February 13, 2018

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