Non-Freezing Cold Injury (NFCI) with Cold Allodynia & Neuropathy

Research Paper Title

A 4-year follow-up of non-freezing cold injury with cold allodynia and neuropathy in 26 naval soldiers.

Background

Non-freezing cold injuries (NFCI), which typically may occur in military personnel, may result from exposure to cold, at temperatures around 0 °C or above, and worsened by wind and moisture. The injury is due to cooling but not freezing of tissue like in frostbite.

NFCI may result in in chronic neuropathy and cold hypersensitivity. A recent retrospective study of small-and large fibres has suggested that NFCI results in neuropathic pain due to a sensory neuropathy and question a longitudinal study to verify a possible observation of improvement of NFCI over time.

The present study is a 4-year follow-up investigation of large – and small-fibre function in 26 naval cadets and officers who were exposed to cold injury during the same military expedition.

Methods

The 26 personnel were investigated clinically (with investigation of motor function, reflexes, sensibility), with nerve conduction studies (NCS) of major nerves in upper- and lower extremity, small fibre testing (QST, measurement of thermal thresholds), measurements of subcutaneous fat tissue and maximal O2 uptake.

Investigations found place 2 months following the actual military expedition, with follow-up investigations of affected soldiers at 6-12 months and up to 3-4 years. In order to elucidate possible mechanisms (disinhibition of cold pain by myelinated nerve fibres) of cold allodynia, cold pain thresholds were measured following an ischemic block of conduction of large and small myelinated nerve fibres.

Results

Of the 26, 19 complained of numbness in feet and a large majority of 16 of cold hypersensitivity 2 months following injury. There were significant alterations of both large- and small-fibre function, indicating a general large- and small-fibre neuropathy.

The most prominent finding was a pronounced cold allodynia, inversely correlated with the amount of subcutaneous fat. During the first year, results of NCS and thermal testing gradually normalised in most.

Seven soldiers developed chronic symptoms in the form of cold hypersensitivity and with findings of cold allodynia, which was not further enhanced, but abolished following block of conduction of myelinated nerve fibres. Seven soldiers were free of symptoms from that start of the investigation, probably because they had been more eager to keep their legs moving during the exposure to cold.

Conclusions

Of a total of 26 soldiers, only seven developed chronic symptoms of cold hypersensitivity, corresponding to the finding of cold allodynia by thermal testing. The cold allodynia may not be explained by disinhibition of cold pain by myelinated fibres as in healthy subjects. A large majority recovered from an initial large-and small fibre neuropathy, demonstrating that recovery from NFCI may occur.

Implications

Although large-and small fibre neuropathy may be restored following cold injury, there is a risk of a permanent and disabling cold hypersensitivity, corresponding to the findings of cold allodynia. It is of uttermost importance to secure military personnel from the risk of cold injuries. It seems important to avoid immobilisation of extremities during exposure to cold.

Reference

AJørum, E. & Opstad, P.K. (2019) A 4-year follow-up of non-freezing cold injury with cold allodynia and neuropathy in 26 naval soldiers. Scandinavian Journal of Pain. 19(3), pp.441-451. doi: 10.1515/sjpain-2019-0035.

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