Cold water therapy is an increasingly popular sports treatment. It is being used by elite athletes to reduce muscle fatigue and accelerate recovery.
What does cold water therapy do
Athletes and sports people use cold water therapy to help reduce tissue swelling. This inflammation occurs as a result of muscle breakdown and micro tears. But to achieve the benefits of this therapy, they must immerse themselves in cold water. An ice bath is ideal for this.
Potential treatment for pain
A recent case report tells of a patient whose pain disappeared after jumping into the cold sea. The patient was experiencing a stabbing pain after an operation. In order to try and control it, doctors gave him physiotherapy and painkillers. But over the following two months, the pain remained.
To detract from the pain, the patient, who, prior to surgery, was a keen triathlete, went for a swim in the sea. But rather than walking into the sea, he jumped in from an outcrop, immersing himself in the cold water. This has the same effect as an athlete submerging themselves into an ice bath.
Surprisingly, the patient became aware that he no longer felt any pain. Even more surprising is that he has not felt any pain since. Where painkillers and rehabilitation failed, cold water succeeded. And as a consequence, the patient’s quality of life before surgery has returned.
What does cold water therapy do for pain relief
The case report authors admit to not fully understanding why this result was experienced by the patient. But they suggest there are some possible biological explanations.
They suggest that the jump into the cold water might have induced a wave of sympathetic nervous system activity. This natural response by the body may alter pain perception, and, in turn, offer instant pain relief.
The sustained relief from pain might result from the patient’s increased mobility resulting from his cold water swim. Before, because the pain was so great, he couldn’t perform his rehabilitation exercises. This will have reduced his mobility and in turn, maintained the pain. It seems that the relief from the pain he felt while swimming, resulted in him moving more freely. This then broke the cycle.