Therapeutic Hypothermia: Is Extreme Cold An Effective Ancient Remedy?
Of all the methods of healing and therapy, one would never think of hypothermia as an effective medical aid. But is there more to cold than we realize? Therapeutic hypothermia has surprisingly old roots in medicine, and extreme cold has been experimented with from times immemorial. It was always thought that the very low temperatures can have a beneficial effect on the most delicate pieces of our body: the neural system.
For centuries scientists and doctors exhaustively researched the claims that hypothermia could preserve the brain and the spinal cord after disease or injuries. What is more, numerous odd cases from history show that people almost miraculously survived near-fatal events - all due to the extremely cold temperatures. So, what hides in hypothermia?
Understanding Extreme Temperatures
Ice and the extreme cold have a curious ability to preserve. While hypothermia is without a doubt a damaging condition for the body, and can quickly lead to a fatal outcome, it can still preserve those delicate mechanisms of the body, if controlled in a proper way. For archaeology and modern science, extreme cold was a huge helping hand, more than once.
For example, the oldest known natural mummy in Europe, the famous Ötzi the Iceman, was discovered in a stunningly preserved condition, even though the person died around 3400 BC! The effects of the ice were phenomenal.
The extreme cold has preserved Otzi extraordinarily well (Salvador García Bardón / CC BY-NC 2.0)
The man’s skin, clothes, implements, gut contents, tattoos, and parts of hair were all well preserved, giving scientists a wealth of information about ancient man and his ways. This case - and many others like it - prompted scientists to consider freezing temperatures and hypothermia as viable means of helping living patients and implementing this state into neural science.
Over the centuries, numerous different accounts were recorded of people suffering from hypothermia and surviving situations that would otherwise be fatal. These accounts tickled the brains of the more intellectually curious, prompting them to investigate the effects of cold on the body.
For a long time, it was believed that hypothermia could literally bring people back from death. It was thought that the neural system and the core body functions were only “halted” by the hypothermic state, which allowed for resuscitation at a later point.
What is more, physicians across ages have recognized that hypothermia can have a therapeutic effect on patients that suffered from different traumas and neurologic illnesses. It was never a secret that cold can have positive effects on the body.
Ever heard of those widely hailed cold showers? That’s just one of the many aspects of cold therapy. After all, ancient man had little access to soothing, steamy hot showers. Icy cold water was the only viable option - and it bore many benefits.
Science, however, took this cold therapy to a whole new level, leading to attempts to preserve neural tissue and salvage its functions, all through hypothermia, the most extreme state of cold. Over the centuries, right down to modern times, these attempts bore little success, and continue to be a great scientific struggle. Nevertheless, history has a lot to tell us about the odd reviving effects of the hypothermic state, and some stories seem to defy all logic.
Anne Greene, A Story Out Of History
One of the most often cited stories from near-modern history is the account of Ms. Anne Greene, and it is a story hard to believe. Ms. Greene, from Steeple Barton in Oxfordshire, worked as a scullery maid in the wealthy household of one Sir Thomas Reade, in the 1650’s.
Woodcut depicting the hanging of Anne Greene in 1651 (A Wonder Of Wonders / Public Domain)
At a tender age of 22, seduced by tall tales and empty promises, this young lady was impregnated by the son of the household master. She made attempts to hide her pregnancy, due to many social stigmas that would fall upon her otherwise.
Alas, after fourteen weeks, the girl had a miscarriage. While attempting to discard of the stillborn fetus, she was caught in the act and accused of infanticide. In accordance with the laws of the time, she was tried and sentenced to death by hanging.
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This occurred on a particularly cold morning on December 14th, 1650. Anne was hanged before a great crowd of onlookers, and her body was pulled down by the feet and her chest struck several times with a butt of a musket - all that in order to “dispatch her out of her paine”.
Dead, But Not For Long
After hanging for half an hour, she was deemed thoroughly dead, and her body was given over to the doctors and students of the University of Oxford, in order to be dissected and studied in the classes of anatomy. Immediately after her execution, the body was placed in a coffin and dispatched to renowned Oxford physicians, Sir William Petty and Thomas Willis, both of them leading professors of anatomy.
But, soon after, a most astonishing thing transpired. When the coffin was opened on the following day, the anatomists were astounded to discover that Anne Greene had a subtle pulse and was faintly breathing. After applying several remedies of the time, and warming up her body extensively, the doctors were astonished to observe Anne Greene coming back to her senses entirely. In essence, she was revived.
At the time, the event was hailed as a miracle and a veritable “Providence of God”. The woman was pardoned and went on to live a normal life afterwards, marrying and having three children. But modern scientists argue that it was the extreme cold on that day that could have been the reason for her miraculous survival.
Could it be that she suffered from hypothermia before being hanged? With her body functions reduced to a near-halt by the cold, it is possible that the hanging had little to no effect on her vital functions.
John Hunter, wondering what he will freeze next (Wellcome Library / CC BY 4.0)
The renowned Scottish surgeon and anatomist, John Hunter (1728-1793) was the first to recognize this, and subsequently performed the first complete experiments on life in a hypothermic state. His resulting work brought a major shift into the scientific circles of Europe.
Cold And The Egyptians
However, we can reach even further back in history in order to understand man’s comprehension of the icy cold. In some of the world’s most ancient origins of medicine, people have understood that extreme cold had unique effects on the body and the neural system.
To search for the roots, we go back to Ancient Egypt, whose prominent figures laid down the cornerstones of medicine many thousands of years before our time. The legendary advisor of the Pharaoh Djoser, the man known as Imhotep, lived around 2780 BC and was an influential figure during his time.
Imhotep was a skilled physician, surgeon, architect, engineer, and the high priest of Ra. He was also the instrumental figure responsible for designing and overseeing the construction of the famed stepped pyramid of Djoser. And, to that note, it was believed that he made many advancements in medicine of that time by observing and treating workers that suffered injuries during construction.
Of course, due to the sheer antiquity of Imhotep, his possible methods and finds have not survived to the present day. However, due to the fact that he was deified and remembered even some two thousand years after he died, it is likely that he was considered a great healer.
Page from Edwin Smith’s papyrus (Jeff Dahl / Public Domain)
One unique papyrus text that was purchased by Edwin Smith in 1862 was dated to the 1600’s BC and is the oldest known surgical treaties on traumas and their treatments. It is possible that it is a copy of a much older papyrus, perhaps dating to the time of Imhotep.
The hieroglyphic text describes many wounds and injuries, mentioning neurosurgical procedures and also orthopedic, and plastic treatments. It clearly shows that Ancient Egyptians knew a lot about medicine.
And, most interestingly of all, it shows that they knew about the benefits of extreme cold as well! Case 46 in the text describes the treatment of a non-infectious chest blister. The papyrus states that extremely cold application will remedy this ailment. It is thus the oldest known document detailing the use of cold to treat disease.
The Greeks Concur
Several thousand years after Imhotep, the renowned Ancient Greek philosopher-physician, Hippocrates, was another who recognized hypothermia as a means of efficient treatment. Before that, he understood that excess heat was a sign of potential issues.
He and his students experimented with mud. By covering a patient and observing where mud dried first, they would pinpoint the source of ailment.
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At the opposite spectrum of this theory, Hippocrates began dabbling with extreme cold. He began inducing hypothermia in patients suffering from tetanus and later suggested that cold could have acute effects on a person.
Hippocrates (Wellcome Library / CC BY 4.0)
He stated that “cold should be applied in the following cases: when there is a hemorrhage or the danger of one. In these cases apply the cold not to the actual spot from which the bleeding occurs or is expected, but round about. Swelling and pain in the joints unassociated with ulceration, gout, and spasms, are mostly relieved and reduced by cold, and pain is thus dispelled. Moderate numbness relieves pain.”
With these statements, Hippocrates also effectively recognized the potential of extreme cold as a primitive anesthetic. He advised that wounded soldiers be packed in ice and snow as a treatment.
And although these observations were crude and semi-efficient, the Hippocratic school of thought could be credited as one of the first instances of hypothermia being used as a treatment for systemic disease. In the many centuries that followed this, similar reports and treatises appeared consistently.
Through the Middle Ages and into the early modern era, cold was repeatedly recognized as a potent remedy and a sure recipe for general well-being. Cold water immersion was often promoted and prescribed.
A pioneering English physician, John Foyer, wrote in his 1697 work, “An Enquiry into the Right Use and Abuses of the Hot, Cold, and Temperate Baths in England”, that extremely cold baths held many benefits, dubbing the therapy “Cold Regimen”:
“In the hot Air of Summer, our Bodies are of less Strength; therefore in Summer it is necessary to concenter our Strength and Spirits by Cold bathing.”
A Dangerous Science
There is no doubt that extreme cold is deadly, but it can also have an odd effect on preserving vital functions of the body. Thus, if applied properly and in measured amounts, hypothermia can have substantial therapeutic effects.
Modern times also remember certain astonishing cases where people survived exposure to below freezing temperatures - with their vital functions surviving the ordeal in a near suspended state.
One of the most famous such cases is that of Jean Hilliard, a young woman that was lost in harsh winter weather on December 20th, 1980. Without managing to find safety in the night, she collapsed in the snow and was frozen solid by the next morning, with her vitals reduced to a bare minimum.
Are there medical benefits to the extreme cold? (salman2 / Adobe Stock)
Even so, she managed to fully recover and continue living a normal life. It could be that - after all - it was the odd effects of the cold that preserved life for such a long time, despite exposure.
Either way, we will probably never fully know of the effects that cold can have on our bodies. Granted, in small amounts and in controlled environments, icy weather and water can be beneficial for us, especially for blood flow, our core, weight loss, and skin health. An occasional cold shower is more than welcome for everyone.
Still, extreme conditions such as hypothermia, are still on the fringes of the medical and scientific worlds. Whether it can be utilized as an effective therapy is yet to be determined. But judging by the history of the concept and the various testaments from ancient times, there could be something big hiding in the idea!
Top image: Are there hidden benefits to cold treatment? Source: Dudarev Mikhail / Adobe Stock.
By Aleksa Vučković
Cohut, M. 2021. Curiosities of Medical History: The controversy of using cold as a treatment. Medical News Today. [Online] Available at:
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