Doctors are exploring the possibility that a cold water plunge may be more effective than strong painkillers in relieving persistent pain after surgery. The experts reached this conclusion after a 28-year-old patient reported that a swim in cold water provided him with instant pain relief.
The patient had recently undergone surgery which involved cutting nerves inside of his chest. Despite a successful procedure, the man remained in severe pain for the next ten weeks that could not be relieved using strong painkillers or therapy.
The patient explained that the constant amount of pain he was enduring was completely ruining his quality of life. Prior to surgery, the man had been a triathlete and swam competitively in open water. He decided to find out if a cold water swim may at least distract him from his unbearable pain.
After the young man plunged into the ocean from some rocks, he discovered that he felt no pain. Incredibly, the pain has not returned since, and the patient’s quality of life has been restored without a need for painkillers.
The study authors acknowledge the fact that this is only an isolated case at this point.
“Due to the nature of retrospective case reports, it is unclear, without further evidence, whether the exposure to forced cold water swimming is causally and specifically related to pain remission,” the researchers wrote.
Without any alternative explanations of how the patient was completely alleviated of pain, however, it seems that the cold water plunge may have done the trick.
The doctors theorize that the shock of the sudden cold water immersion may have induced a wave of sympathetic nervous system activity, which would have altered the patient’s pain perception. They also speculate that diving into the water may have broken a cycle of immobility that was causing the pain to persist.
Nerve pain can be very difficult to treat and can cause psychological problems if it does not respond to conventional treatment. The doctors will seek out more evidence to determine if a cold water plunge may succeed where painkillers fail.
“Further prospective [exploratory] 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.”
The study is published in the journal BMJ Case Reports.