The Cold Hard Truth About Cold Therapy

closeup image of surgical mask, stethoscope, and gloves

Thousands of Americans, including athletes, accident victims and post-surgical patients use various forms of cold therapy, or cryotherapy, to minimize and reduce swelling. Cold therapy devices are often prescribed by orthopedic surgeons and podiatrists after surgical procedures to minimize pain and swelling and encourage mobility in areas such as the ankles, feet, wrists, hands, knees, and shoulders. At-home cryotherapy machines are used by circulating cold water around the affected areas after surgery.

However, cold therapy devices can also do serious harm if used improperly or if the proper warnings and instructions are not given. The damage can be extensive, including skin damage, nerve damage and even frostbite, which in turn may result in amputation.

Some of the products that have been known to cause damage are made by DJO Inc.,(DonJoy Iceman); Biomet, (EBIce cold therapy system); and Breg Inc., (Breg Polar Care system).

Although a cold therapy system or cryotherapy device must be prescribed by a physician, the device is actually used at home by the patients, who are generally not well versed in using cold therapy, and are not given adequate instructions as to how to properly use the machines. One of the problems stems from not knowing how long is “too long” and the lack of a safety shut off switch on the devices if the machine is being overused. recently reported that over-exposure to cold therapy products can cause severe injuries such as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (also known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome):

Although a doctor usually prescribes a cold therapy unit after surgery, most consumers use the cold therapy products at their home. With no adequate instructions provided, alarms, or emergency shut-off system, consumers can easily become victims of these cold therapy products.

Problems arise with over-exposure of cold therapy to an injured area. Many people are told something along the lines of, “The colder the pad and the longer you can keep it on your skin, the better.” This is simply not true. When your skin gets cold, the cold temperature causes “vasoconstriction”, which cold therapy is supposed to do. Vasoconstriction is when the blood vessels that are closer to the skin surface narrow and constrict. When cold, the human bodies protective measures actually lower the level of blood flow to the cold area and provide extra blood flow to vital internal organs.

When low blood circulation and long exposure to cold temperature are experienced together, the skin tissue can freeze and become permanently damages. Furthermore, because of the lack of blood flow the risk of damaging the nerves around the area on which cold therapy is applied increases. The resulting nerve damage, or nerve pain, can be severe, moderate or mild. Regardless of the severity of the damage, any damage to the nervous system can seriously and radically affect a person’s quality of the life.

Moreover, cold therapy users are often injured during a treatment without even realizing something is wrong. When applied for an extend period of time, cold therapy causes the area where the cold therapy pad is applied to become numb and lose feeling. When this occurs, by the time the cold therapy consumer realizes there is a problem, it is already too late. Also, Many cold therapy users have been injured while using cold therapy as recommended.

There are safer alternatives to the use of Cold Therapy devices, including a product called Physicool. Please follow the links below to learn more about Cold Therapy, RSD and Physicool. If you or a loved one has been injured by the use of cold therapy or cryotherapy devices, please contactone of the attorneys at Zimmerman & Frachtman to find out how we can help.

Cold Therapy’s Connection to RSD

Physicool USA

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