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Cold for Chronic Pain

Updated: May 10

Need for medication drops after cryotherapy

A Netflix documentary about free diver Johanna Nordblad attempting to break the world record for distance traveled under ice with one breath explained that her cold water swimming relieved the pain of severe neuralgia resulting from a damaged nerve.

Rx = Cold

I first wrote about the benefits of cold plunge therapy for chronic pain in Cryotherapy for Chronic Medical Conditions and in Re-ordering Autoimmune Disorders, I described the recovery from rheumatoid arthritis that medical safety specialist Erin Miller, RN experienced after adopting a cold plunge practice. Like many people, she reported to me that she prefers to avoid taking pharmaceuticals, both because their beneficial effects are incomplete and because she wants to avoid the long-term risks.

You might think that if there were proven analgesic therapies available without drugs, then clinicians would no doubt be prescribing them. I've found that is rarely the case. In my view:

Medical doctors would be wise to attend to the analgesic advantages of cold therapy for pain management, even if healing these patients would damage drug company sales.

This article describes three real-life stories of chronic pain, all relieved by deliberate cold exposure, in people who couldn't seem more different but turn out to have something in common. The first is an extreme athlete -- a free diver who makes record-breaking swims under the ice of frozen Finnish lakes. The second is an elderly Italian woman with rheumatic disease. The third is a Morozko customer who has suffered three back surgeries that have failed to resolve chronic pain. All chose cold therapy when conventional drug treatment options failed them, and to different extents, all three have found some relief in the cold water.

Cold Water Swimming Resolves Neuralgia

Johanna Nordblad set the world record for swimming under ice with one breath in March 2021 at the age of 45. You can view her amazing story and record-breaking feat in the wonderfully produced Netflix mini documentary Hold Your Breath: The Ice Dive (2022). While her dramatic swim is a classic daredevil story, the film also describes the chronic pain she suffered after emergency surgery damaged nerves in her leg.

Years before her record-setting swim, a mountain biking accident required fasciotomy to save her foot from amputation. However, the surgery also left her with severe, life-debilitating neuralgia. Some nights, she would wake up in the middle of the night, screaming in excruciating pain. Unable to provide relief through conventional treatment methods, her medical doctor prescribed ice water therapy for her problem foot.

She hated plunging her foot into freezing cold water -- but only for the first two minutes. Then, the pain disappeared.

At first the treatment (ice water) was painful. So much so that it made me cry. But as I began to get used to the cold water, I noticed that it was not only good for the injury, but it created a state of deep relaxation for my whole body... the injury had opened up a whole new world (of cold therapy) for me.

Nordblad told The Red Bull Bulletin (2022) that she began to immersing her whole body fully into the cold water.

You get into a meditative state without meditating. Ice swimming is a spa treatment for lazy people. A couple of minutes in cold water feels like a 10-day break. - Johanna Nordblad

Relief from Rheumatic Disease

Few people live at the extreme edge of survival, as Nordblad does. Most people gradually decline in health and well-being until they succumb to one of a myriad of chronic illnesses normally associated with ageing.

Among these is some form rheumatism -- i.e., arthritis and other inflammatory disorders of the joints and connective tissue that limit mobility and typically require pain or other medications. For example, the most common rheumatic disease among people over the age of 50 is polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR), which is characterized by pain and stiffness in the neck, shoulders and hips. Corticosteroids are typically the first line of treatment, although their prolonged use is associated with several adverse effects. Alternative treatments that avoid the risks of extended steroids, NSAIDs, and other drugs would be welcome relief for patients and the clinicians that care for them.

When a 74-year-old Italian woman with multiple diagnoses including PMR, osteoporosis and psoriasis failed to improve after trying prednisone, then methotrexate, then pregabalin (in addition to Vitamin D supplements), her physicians decided to augment her drug regimen with whole-body cryotherapy (WBC). She underwent 10 sessions at -110°C for two minutes , at 9AM and again at 12 noon.

She did five straight days, and she got better.

Her intake results on standardized life-quality questionnaires were terrible, which reflected upon her experience with persistent pain and reduced energy. After less than a week of cold therapy, every aspect of her disease improved, including reduced pain, improved energy, better sleep, and increased aptitude for physical activity. Her self-reported pain scores dropped from 9 (out of 10) to 3. Moreover, she reduced her daily drug intake by 67% following whole-body cold therapy treatments.

Whole-body cryotherapy has been shown to be a scalable and well-tolerated alternative aimed at reducing not only pain but also fatigue, disease impact, drug therapies, and largely improving sleep and physical activity. - Verme et al. (2023).

Management of Chronic Back Pain

Last week, I got a message from an early adopter who suffers from chronic back pain resulting from injury. He's been using his Morozko for more than three years, but he was frustrated because the gasket on his filter was damaged, causing a persistent leak, and his efforts to repair it inflamed his back. His message was both a testimonial and appeal for help, and Morozko service staff have mailed him a new gasket.

This is what he said:

I have titanium rods that go from my tailbone to my neck. Due to my daily constant struggle with my back pain, it puts me in a negative space almost all the time. Well, after three back surgeries, the ice bath is a testament to my pain relief. I won't take pharmaceuticals. The only thing that has helped me remedy this and get sleep at night is the Morozko ice bath. - Customer in Chronic Pain

No Miracle for Pain Management

Case studies and clinical trials describing the benefits of cold therapy for management of chronic pain are becoming commonplace. For example, Klemm et al. (2022) report that "WBC in RA reduces pain and disease activity significantly and in a clinically meaningful manner, resulting in a reduction of analgesics" and Sadura-Sieklucka et al. (2019) report that cold therapy reduces systemic markers of inflammation like C-reactive Protein (CRP).

Although for many patients, cold therapy may seem like a "miracle," case studies like these indicate that the benefits are not miraculous -- cold therapy is a repeatable, reliable, predictable, therapy for enabling the human body to heal itself and free patients from the adverse side effects of pharmaceuticals.

What might it take for more people to try it for themselves?



  • Gizińska M, Rutkowski R, Romanowski W, Lewandowski J, Straburzyńska-Lupa A. Effects of whole-body cryotherapy in comparison with other physical modalities used with kinesitherapy in rheumatoid arthritis. BioMed Research International. 2015 Oct 21;2015.

  • Klemm P, Hoffmann J, Asendorf T, Aykara I, Frommer K, Dischereit G, Müller-Ladner U, Neumann E, Lange U. Whole-body cryotherapy for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis: a monocentric, single-blinded, randomised controlled trial. Clin. Exp. Rheumatol. 2022 Mar 1;40(11):2133-40.

  • Sadura-Sieklucka, T., Sołtysiuk, B., Karlicka, A., Sokołowska, B., Kontny, E., & Książek, K. (2019). Effects of Whole Body Cryotherapy in Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis Considering Immune Parameters. Reumatologia, 57(5), 266–272. DOI: 10.5114/reum.2019.90825.

  • Verme F, Scarpa A, Varallo G, Piterà P, Capodaglio P, Fontana JM. Effects of Whole-Body Cryostimulation on pain management and disease activity in active Rheumatic Polymyalgia: a Case-Report. Biomedicines. 2023 May 31;11(6):1594.


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