How Cool Temperatures Can Save Lives

Can cold temperatures make us live longer?

Cooling treatment at about 33°C

In 2012 Zach Conrad, a 36-year-old finance manager from the US, had a heart attack while he was on a bike ride. In the US, there are more than 356,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests every year. About 90% of them, treated with “traditional” resuscitation techniques, end up being fatal. Normally (if we consider “normal” what current medical technology is able to achieve) Zach would have probably died. Yet, some researchers are working on new resuscitation techniques. And Zach happened to have his heart attack in the right place for two reasons:

  1. He collapsed in front of an ER nurse, who could start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) within seconds. This prevented ischemia (the lack of blood flow to the entire brain) and reduced brain damage.
  2. His cardiac arrest happened not too far from Penn Medicine, a hospital utilizing a new cutting-edge procedure called therapeutic hypothermia.

Therapeutic hypothermia today

The term “therapeutic hypothermia” has gained medical value only in the last few years. Yet, we can find many historical references to the use of low temperatures in the treatment of certain diseases. It is believed that Hyppocrates himself (circa 450 B.C) advocated packing wounded soldiers in the snow.

How therapeutic hypothermia is commonly induced today — Image Credit: health.howstuffworks.com

Accidental hypothermia at 13.7°C

Therapeutic hypothermia is a controlled medical practice. Yet, there have been uncontrolled accidental cases where cool temperatures have saved lives. Let’s have a look at one of them.

After falling into a frozen lake, Anna Bågenholm’s brain lasted 80 minutes with little to zero oxygen

Medical outcome of Anna Bågenholm’s case

Before this happened, no patient had survived being frozen to death at the University Hospital of North Norway (where Anna was treated). But between 1999 and 2013, 9 out of 24 patients survived hypothermic cardiac arrest.

Cryopreservation at -196°C

This is where human cryopreservation aka biostasis comes in. Human cryopreservation is an advanced medical procedure that, through the use of very low cryogenic temperatures, can preserve a body for as long as it’s necessary, for decades or even centuries. You might ask yourself, why would we need centuries to treat a patient? The answer is simple.

Conclusion

In the cases seen above, people’s lives were saved by medical personnel who pushed the limits of present-day medical technology. These people had the chance to live longer because doctors and nurses didn’t stop at what is considered “norm” today.

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