How Cold Exposure May Treat Inflammation and Discomfort
How cold can cure inflammation and reduce pain
Damage to our muscles or bones is one of the most prevalent causes of pain, which sadly creates impairment that can endure for many years. Lower back pain is the most pervasive, affecting roughly four out of every ten individuals in Europe and three out of every ten in the United States. Unfortunately, it may be crippling and continue for years.
It’s difficult to comprehend, yet many individuals endure chronic pain without seeking medical attention. Those that do rely on over-the-counter anti-inflammatory or pain reliever drugs. They are also likely to utilize cold therapies to alleviate the agony of those harmed or damaged. So, how can the cold aid with pain relief?
There is evidence that cold therapies are helpful for pain, particularly acute muscle discomfort after activity. This can take the shape of a frozen pea bag, ice wrapped in a cloth, cold gel packs, or immersing the afflicted body area or even the entire body in very cold or icy water. The cold exposure to the injured muscle numbs the region, inhibiting pain messages from reaching the brain from the nerve endings. It also lowers blood flow, slowing the rate at which the chemicals that cause inflammation reach the affected region.
An analysis of 17 research experiments indicated that immersing the afflicted muscle in cold water significantly lowers pain during various periods following strenuous activity. The time points were twenty-four, forty-eight, seventy-two, and ninety-six hours following exercise, and they were compared to doing nothing else to relieve pain.
However, scientific evidence to support this data is limited. The majority of the study focuses on acute injuries rather than chronic pain. That being said, persistent back pain is frequently the consequence of an acute injury that was not treated in the first place. As a result, many are avoiding therapy and opting to self-medicate. The goal here is to promptly and regularly apply cold exposure to the injury to prevent acute pain from progressing to life-long, chronic discomfort.
Although the advantages of cold exposure for pain management are modest, there is far more evidence to support the lowering of inflammation. And, given that inflammation contributes to many aspects of pain, this is welcome news.
Monocytes are an essential component of the immune system. They are a kind of white blood cell produced in the bone marrow and aid the body in fighting illness. Monocytes serve as our body’s health guardians. They circulate in the bloodstream until called upon, at which point they leap into action. When they come across a pathogen, such as a viral or bacterial cell, they migrate to the site of the infection, causing inflammation. They then undergo macrophage transformation. Macrophages are pathogen-eating cells. They also produce substances that aid in the fight against disease, decreasing inflammation produced by bacterial and viral invaders. Monocytes can also aid in cleaning away the inflammatory elements of these disorders, such as plaques in the brain, and hence guard against Alzheimer’s disease and fibrosis (8).
Cold exposure has also been found to lower inflammation in the brain and spinal cord; thus, it can help the brain in other ways. Furthermore, cold exposure has been shown to reduce auto-immune illnesses, also caused by inflammation. Inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis are two examples. With that stated, cold therapy in the form of an ice pack is a helpful treatment for rheumatoid arthritis pain and inflammation that has already established itself in the body.
Regular exposure to cold water, such as swimming in open water or ice baths, has been proven to increase monocyte production and reduce inflammation.
Cold exposure also lowers inflammation by raising levels of the hormone melanocortin adrenocorticotropin, which has the unintended consequence of elevating cortisol. Because of their effects on immune cells, both hormones help reduce inflammation. Furthermore, cold exposure raises norepinephrine levels (also known as noradrenalin). This hormone has the potential to alleviate pain. The disadvantage is that you must be in good health and your exposure to the cold must be prolonged and frequent.
You must be in excellent health because, in an unfortunate twist of nature, monocytes, although safeguarding us against viral and bacterial infection, can also play a role in the advancement of various inflammatory disorders. Atherosclerosis is the accumulation of fatty deposits and plaques in blood arteries; cancer metastasis is the spread of cancer cells from the original location to other parts of the body; and multiple sclerosis is a degenerative illness that affects the brain and nervous system. As a result, it is not recommended that you utilize cold exposure if you have cancer, multiple sclerosis, or atherosclerosis.
On the other hand, cold exposure has been demonstrated to slow the development of cancer cells. Cancer thrives on glucose, but so does brown fat, which the cold stimulates. In other words, brown fat activation gets first dibs on glucose, preventing cancer cells from feeding. They can’t grow if they can’t eat. However, in addition to cold exposure, limiting the consumption of glucose, sugar, and carbs in the diet are required, as there is a limit to how much glucose the brown fat requires. Because inflammation is a significant cause of cancer, taking cold showers frequently, combined with a healthy lifestyle, can help minimize your chance of having this terrible illness.
As you may have guessed, the relationship between cold exposure and inflammation is complex. Still, the general conclusion is that taking cold showers with a healthy diet and lifestyle can enhance your immunity and lower your chance of acquiring inflammation-related illnesses.
- Musculoskeletal Health in Europe. http://www.eumusc.net/myUploadData/files/Musculoskeletal%20Health%20in%20Europe%20Report%20v5.pdf
- Severe headache or migraine, low back pain, and neck pain among adults aged 18 and over, by selected characteristics: United States, selected years 1997–2012 https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/2012/047.pdf
- The epidemiology of low back pain https://bit.ly/3FIOkgs
- Musculoskeletal pain in Europe: its impact and a comparison of population and medical perceptions of treatment in eight European countries https://ard.bmj.com/content/annrheumdis/63/4/342.full.pdf
- Treatment of acute soft-tissue injury using ice: A systematic review https://www.proquest.com/openview/b68a6dfa85462eb8052d59c548210165/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
- Cold-water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise (Review) https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD008262.pub2/pdf/full
- The Biochemical Origin of Pain: The origin of all Pain is Inflammation and the Inflammatory Response. PART 2 of 3 –Inflammatory Profile of Pain Syndromes https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2771434/
- Monocytes in health and disease – Minireview https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3956957/
- Cold exposure protects from neuroinflammation through immunologic reprogramming https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8570411/
- Chronic inflammation is related to a wide variety of conditions, from arteriosclerosis to diabetes. https://www.cdrg.org/chronic-diseases/inflammation/
- Cold and compression in the management of musculoskeletal injuries and orthopedic operative procedures: a narrative review https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3781860/
- The immune system of cold exposure and cold-adapted humans https://www.researchgate.net/publication/14280976_Immune_system_of_cold_exposed_an_cold_adapted_humans
- Effects of long-term whole-body cold exposures on plasma concentrations of ACTH, beta-endorphin, cortisol, catecholamines, and cytokines in healthy females https://web.archive.org/web/20190222070658id_/http://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/3559/24275c0178ebf419287d87c1f90be68bc589.pdf
- ACTH: The forgotten therapy https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25726511/
- Cold Exposure Promotes Atherosclerotic Plaque Growth and Instability via UCP1-Dependent Lipolysis https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3701322/
- Brown-fat-mediated tumor suppression by cold-altered global metabolism https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-05030-3
- Chronic Inflammation https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/chronic-inflammation
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