Cold-water immersion and the treatment of hyperthermia: using 38.6°C as a safe rectal temperature cooling limit

Daniel Gagnon, Bruno B Lemire, Douglas J Casa, Glen P Kenny
Journal of Athletic Training 2010, 45 (5): 439-44

CONTEXT: Cold-water immersion is recommended for the immediate field treatment of exertional heat stroke. However, concerns exist over potential overcooling of hyperthermic individuals during cold-water immersion.

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the recommendation that removing previously hyperthermic individuals from a cold-water bath at a rectal temperature (T(re)) of 38.6°C would attenuate overcooling.

DESIGN: Controlled laboratory study.

SETTING: University research laboratory.

PATIENTS OR OTHER PARTICIPANTS: Participants included 6 men and 4 women (age  =  22 ± 3 years, height  =  172 ± 10 cm, mass  =  67.8 ± 10.7 kg, body fat percentage  =  17.1% ± 4.5%, maximum oxygen consumption  =  59.3 ± 8.7 mL·kg(-1)·min(-1)).

INTERVENTION(S): After exercising at an ambient temperature of 40.0°C for 38.5 ± 9.4 minutes, until T(re) reached 39.5°C, participants were immersed in a 2.0°C circulated water bath until T(re) decreased to either 37.5°C or 38.6°C. Subsequently, participants were removed from the water bath and recovered for 20 minutes at an ambient temperature of 25°C.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURE(S): Rectal and esophageal temperatures were measured continuously during the immersion and recovery periods.

RESULTS: Because of the experimental design, the overall time of immersion was greater during the 37.5°C trial (16.6 ± 5.7 minutes) than the 38.6°C trial (8.8 ± 2.6 minutes) (t(9)  =  -4.740, P  =  .001). During the recovery period after cold-water immersion, both rectal (F(1,9)  =  50.540, P < .001) and esophageal (F(1,6)  =  20.365, P  =  .007) temperatures remained greater in the 38.6°C trial than in the 37.5°C trial. This was evidenced by low points of 36.47°C ± 0.70°C and 37.19°C ± 0.71°C for rectal temperature (t(9)  =  2.975, P  =  .016) and of 35.67°C ± 1.27°C and 36.72°C ± 0.95°C for esophageal temperature (t(6)  =  3.963, P  =  .007) during the recovery period of the 37.5°C and 38.6°C trials, respectively.

CONCLUSIONS: Immersion for approximately 9 minutes to a rectal temperature cooling limit of 38.6°C negated any risk associated with overcooling hyperthermic individuals when they were immersed in 2°C water.

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