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Cold water swimming may offer relief from severe pain

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A man who suffered constant pain after surgery found instant relief by taking a plunge in cold open water.

Details of the unusual case have been featured in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

Doctors suggest that a short, sharp, cold water swim may offer an alternative to strong painkillers and physiotherapy to relieve severe persistent pain after surgery.

The 28-year-old man, who experienced excessive facial flushing, had undergone a surgical procedure known as endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy to cut the triggering nerves inside his chest.

While the procedure itself was successful, he was still suffering shooting pains in his chest 10 weeks later, causing him a “great deal of distress”.

Exercise and movement just made the pain worse, preventing him from completing his rehabilitation and recovery, BMJ reported.

A keen triathlete before his operation, he decided to take a cold water swim to take his mind off the pain — with remarkable results.

“To his surprise, the young man felt no pain while he was in the water, but nor has he felt any since,” the BMJ said. “His preoperative quality of life has been fully restored and he has resumed his usual sporting activities without further recourse to any painkillers.”

Although it is unclear how this happened, doctors say the shock of the sudden cold water immersion might have induced a wave of nervous system activity which led to altered pain perception. Another possible explanation is that the man’s reduced mobility might have helped maintain the pain, so the pain relief he felt in the water would have enabled him to move freely and break that cycle.

The case raises the possibility that a cold water plunge might succeed where painkillers fail.

However, the authors caution that this is only one patient and more research 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 post-operative complications”.