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A Cold Grip on Health
In the dark gloomy depths of winter in non-tropical areas of the world, so many of us look with anticipation to the upcoming warmth of spring and summer weather and curse the harsh cold. In other situations, when we describe friendly, caring people, we describe them as warm, but those without a smile on their face who are unenthusiastic or without a pleasant demeanor are described as cold. Though it is easy to understand the reasons why it has earned its reputation, the concept of cold has been given the cold shoulder and in many places, is not treated with the decency that it deserves.

That said, in medical science at least, cold is fighting back against its bad reputation and is becoming more popular as researchers find more ways in which it can be used for the benefit of human health. Most of us are aware of the use of cool water for reducing the pain of mild burns and cold packs for treating the swelling of minor strains and sprains. These remedies have been around many years and are well tried and tested.

In newer applied medical efforts and in research, cold is finding a number of different purposes through the controlled introduction of hypothermia or lowered body temperature in patients. []Research has found that reducing body temperature generally decreases the damage to tissues that are deprived of oxygen[] by slowing down the metabolism of cells.

One such use of hypothermia currently in clinical trials at the University of Texas Health Science Center involves immediate treatment of patients that have suffered a stroke with a combination of caffeine, alcohol and hypothermia. The particular strokes involved are those resulting from a blockage of blood flow that prevents oxygen from reaching parts of the brain. Research conducted before the trial began had determined that blocked blood flow not only starved the brain cells of oxygen, but also resulted in the creation of toxic chemicals in the brain that compounded the damage caused by oxygen deprivation.

The clinical trial, due to be complete in December, will determine whether the combination therapy including hypothermia is able to prevent some of this damage. With strokes being the 3rd largest killer of US and UK citizens and the single largest cause of significant disability, any positive findings from the research will be welcome news.

In related research, another clinical trial being conducted at the Yale School of Medicine is also attempting to determine whether induced hypothermia in newborns can be used to prevent death and disability. Infants that endure low oxygen levels before birth may experience developmental delay, impaired mental abilities, or cerebral palsy later on so the trial being run will determine whether the level of damage to the brain is reduced through hypothermia treatment. Because 50 to 75% of infants that suffer low oxygen levels die and 80% of those that survive have disability, improving the odds can save many lives.

Another important use of hypothermia that is in the late stages of product development and in use in hospitals involves preventing death of heart tissue in those that suffer a heart attack. Several companies have developed technologies to rapidly lower and regular the body temperature either in the hospital or in an ambulance while a patient is in transit. Research results on the effectiveness of the technologies have shown that early and rapid cooling can reduce the amount of tissue death in the heart from low oxygen levels by as much as 40%. The added benefit of the hypothermia treatment is also that the oxygen requirements for the brain are reduced and brain damage from lack of blood flow can also be limited.

Heart attacks kill almost 450,000 people in the US annually and account for almost 20% of all deaths. In the UK, heart attacks are the leading cause of death so efforts that reduce the rate of death for those who experience a heart attack are being examined rigorously.

One last use of cold therapy that is of less live-saving value, but still of considerable value to patients relates to cancer and chemotherapy. Most of us are aware of how chemotherapy causes loss of hair and can add to the negative feelings associated with being ill. However, through the use of scalp cooling technologies used during the course of chemotherapy, patients are now able to avoid most hair loss. The systems are not yet commonly available, but where they are patients taking certain drugs can limit hair loss and hair thinning such that they maintain a more positive attitude that can improve treatment outcomes.

While we have long treated cold as something very negative, its involvement in modern medicine is demonstrating important benefits to maintaining our health. For doctors, cold serves as yet another important tool in their arsenal against the diseases and conditions that affect humanity. For all that we dislike it, its time to warm up a bit to cold.

Have you experienced the latest hypothermia inducing technologies in treatments? Did the use of cold protect your quality of life or save your life? Share your stories with others in comments or in the forums.

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