Look over there! Distracting the Brain from Pain…

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A short, sharp, cold water swim may offer an alternative to strong painkillers and physiotherapy to relieve severe, persistent pain after surgery, suggest doctors in the journal BMJ Case Reports.


The doctors responsible for this report did offer a guarded suggestion that a cold water plunge could be of assistance to those experiencing chronic pain as a result of post operative complications. Their theory is founded on the experience of a young man in the UK who, 10 weeks post surgery, was still experiencing significant and debilitating pain.  The patient who happened to be a tri-athlete insisted that a cold water immersion would reduce his pain. Indeed the cold water immersion completely resolved his pain and he was immediately back to normal activities.

The most likely explanation for this occurrence is referred to as the ‘pain gate mechanism’.

We know that pain is experienced in the brain. We might feel it in the body but it is the brain that registers this feeling.  The brain is amazing in many ways and a bit dumb in others. When it comes to feelings and experiences, it has difficulty multi tasking. For example, it can experience at one time,  either:

  • Pain
  • Pressure
  • Hot or cold

So when we hurt ourselves and experience pain, a natural response is to apply pressure (rub it) or cold (cold pack). Essentially, what our tri-athlete did in this instance was distract his single-tasking brain from experiencing pain by using cold. The doctors whose care he was under suggested that his pain was caused by an overstimulated nervous system which was responsible for ramping up his pain experience.

The cold water immersion interrupted the experience, reset his nervous system and normalised his pain response.

We know so much more about pain today than we did five years ago. And we do know that there are other ways to distract your brain that don’t necessarily involve cold water immersion. A cheeky therapist however, might tell you it is your only option – but at Bellbird Sports and Spinal, we’re happy to workshop other ideas with you before pushing you into an ice bath… Book in with one of our practitioners today.

Written by Jane Hilson

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