Unlikely intervention instantly ends man's agony

BMJ case report speculates on reasons for his relief

A quick plunge in freezing cold water may be a good alternative to strong painkillers, say researchers.

A team from Cambridge University report on the case of a 28-year-old man who did just that to combat postoperative neuropathic pain and immobility.

The man had undergone endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy to curb his excessive facial flushing. While the procedure was successful, the man suffered chronic pain afterwards.

Writing in BMJ Case Reports, the researchers note that before his surgery, the man had been a keen triathlete.

He suggested to his doctors that a swim would, at the very least, provide a welcome distraction from the searing pain.

According to the report, the man felt no pain while swimming in cold open water, and has not felt any since.

The authors caution that this is only one case report but given the timeframe and the absence of alternative explanations, other than pure chance, it seems as if the cold water might have afforded some instant pain relief.

Possible biological explanations include that the shock of the sudden cold water might have induced a wave of sympathetic nervous system activity which in turn altered pain perception, offering instant relief.

As to why the man’s pain disappeared completely over the long term, the authors suggest the pain relief he felt in the water would have enabled him to move freely so breaking the pain/immobility cycle.

“Treatment-resistant neuralgia appeared to resolve in a cost-effective and rapid manner that could be acceptable to future patients,” they write.

You can access the paper here.