Can cold water end chronic pain? It did for this guy

Have you ever heard of the Polar Bear Club? They’re a group of people who go swimming in outdoor bodies of water during the winter… when temps are below freezing.

The mere thought of winter swimming makes me want to curl up under a warm blanket with a piping hot cup of tea. So it’s not a group I’ll be joining anytime soon. But if I was one of the 50 million Americans dealing with chronic or severe pain, I might reconsider.


Well, most chronic pain sufferers have to resort to addictive and dangerous painkillers to cope. Maybe you’re one of them. But members of the Polar Bear Club may be on to a simple and side effect-free way to relieve chronic pain that doesn’t involve addictive painkillers — a cold water swim.

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A strange but true tale

Imagine this…

You have surgery to take care of a health condition, but afterward you’re left with severe, chronic pain that even heavy duty painkillers can’t touch. Even worse, when you move, the pain gets stronger, making the physical therapy you need to recover from your surgery excruciating and impossible.

Sounds like a miserable situation to be in, right?

Well, that’s the exact situation one 28 year-old man found himself in. He was in constant pain, he couldn’t function and doctors were short on solutions. Luckily, he stumbled onto a solution himself… one so surprising that doctors decided to write about it in The BMJ (British Medical Journal).

This young man used to compete in triathlons and enjoyed swimming in open bodies of water. So he decided to take a cold water swim one day to take his mind off of his awful pain. But that swim did him more good than he ever imagined…

Not only did it take his mind off of his pain, it got rid of it completely. The pain stopped once he entered the water, and it hasn’t returned since.

Researchers are cautious to say that the cold water cured this man’s chronic pain, but they can’t figure out what else would have. The timing is just too coincidental. He went for a cold water swim and his pain was gone.

So they have to admit that fateful swim probably had something to do with his pain’s sudden departure.

But how?

Cold water theories

Researchers have a couple of theories about how cold water could have healed this man’s pain…

One theory is that the cold water shocked the man’s sympathetic nervous system. This type of nervous system shock has been shown to alter your state of consciousness, and could hypothetically alter your perception of pain.

Researchers also think it’s possible that the cold water freed up the man’s muscles and improved his mobility. Since he underwent surgery then fell into a cycle of severe pain that prevented him from doing physical therapy, his mobility had declined significantly. And that decreased mobility may have been contributing to his pain.

Now, be warned. This is only one man’s experience. And there’s hasn’t been much research on how cold water swimming effects pain. But cold therapy is often used in sports medicine to help with injuries. Cold masks or head wraps have also been found to relieve migraine pain. So maybe there is something to the cold water cure for chronic pain…

What we know about cold water and pain…

If you’re knowledgeable about alternative remedies, you’ve probably heard of something called hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy is the use of water in varying ways and at varying temperatures to treat health conditions. Studies have shown that hydrotherapy can help people with chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia.

Something called cold water immersion has also attracted attention in recent years… especially among athletes. That’s where you fill your tub with water and ice (the bath should be about 60 -55 degrees Fahrenheit) and you sit in it for 10 to 15 minutes.

So if you want to see if cold water can help your chronic pain, you have a few options:

You can reach out to a natural health practitioner who practices hydrotherapy to create a treatment plan. You can try a DIY ice bath at home. Or you can follow the lead of those crazy Polar Bear Club members and go for an outdoor, cold water swim.

But if you decide to do the latter, make sure to follow a few safety tips…

  • Never go alone. Have someone there to spot you, even if they don’t join in you in the water.
  • Stay near the shore.
  • Only go in for a few minutes. The Polar Bear Club goes in for 10 minutes… but they’re experienced cold water swimmers.
  • If your arms and legs feel weak, get out immediately. Cold water can make you weak and put you at risk for drowning.
  • Beware of the early signs of hypothermia — shivering and teeth chattering. Get out and get warm if you notice these signs.
  • Have warm, dry clothes ready when you get out.

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  1. Cold open water plunge provides instant pain relief — MedicalXpress. Retrieved February 13, 2018.
  2. B. Mole and P. Mackeith. “Cold forced open-water swimming: a natural intervention to improve postoperative pain and mobilisation outcomes?” — BMJ Case Reports, 2018.
  3. NIH Analysis Shows Americans Are In Pain — National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Retrieved February 13, 2018.
  4. Heat and cold treatment: Which is best? — Medical News Today. Retrieved February 13, 2018.
  5. Mooventhan and L. Nivethitha. “Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body.” — North American Journal of Medical Science. 2014 May; 6(5): 199–209.
  6. RheumShorts: Fibromyalgia, Scleroderma, Spondylitis — MedPage Today. Retrieved February 13, 2018.
  7. A Runner’s Guide To Ice Baths — Competitor Running. Retrieved February 13, 2018.
  8. Cold open water plunge may provide instant pain relief — BBC News. Retrieved February 13, 2018.
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine,, and