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Cold Weather and the Human Response

The Hunting Reflex

With this recent bout of cold weather, it got me thinking about a phenomenon I learned about in chiropractic school called the hunting reflex. This is a primitive reflex of the body where prolonged exposure to the cold causes our brains to send more blood to the extremities to keep those areas warm. This was particularly useful in early humans when they would spend long hours hunting out in the cold.

This relates to chiropractic in the application of ice packs to reduce swelling. When you come to see me for an injury, you might ask me whether heat or ice would be better to use as home care. Nine times out of ten, I'm going to tell you to use heat, because your condition is chronic, meaning it has been around for a while, and we need to use heat to improve blood flow to a certain area. However, when a condition calls for ice therapy, I will give you specific instructions on how to use it properly.

Cold therapy is used to stimulate the body to divert blood away from the area being treated, thereby reducing swelling, decreasing bruising, redness, and pain. This therapy is most effective for new injuries which have occurred no longer than 72 hours previously. When applying cold packs, I always recommend that you use it for no longer than 15 minutes, and no more than once per hour. The reason for this is the hunting reflex.

The hunting reflex takes place after an ice pack has been on an area of your body for more than 15 minutes. It's effect is the opposite of what we were trying to do with the ice in the first place, which is reduce inflammation. When the hunting reflex goes into effect, the area being treated actually begins to heat up as more blood is sent to this area. When this happens, the signs and symptoms of inflammation begin to return.

In short, the hunting reflex can be useful if you are unfortunate enough to have to be out in the cold for an extended period of time, but when it comes to using cold as a therapy, it can actually work against us. Just remember that the next time you use an ice pack!

Here to Help,

Dr. B

NEXT WEEK: Cold Weather and Appetite

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This is really interesting. What seems to happen to me every time is that my fingers are extremely cold for about 10 minutes or so and I’m shoving them inside of my gloves, turning them into fists and hoping they warm up, and then all of a sudden they are perfectly warm for the rest of my ride.
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