Like some people with ME/CFS I’ve made a significant degree of improvement over a number of years. I’m fairly stable, mobile, able go for longish walks, and manage to do some part-time work. A well-intentioned friend who goes wild water swimming has suggested that I ‘give it a try’. She claims it can have all kinds of health benefits, including “resetting body clocks that have gone wrong”. She even pointed me to some research about the benefits of cold water swimming for conditions such as arthritis. I’m very open-minded about trying anything that might work. But I’m concerned that this could actually make ME/CFS worse.
Thanks for asking a very interesting question. I have a personal interest here in that I started some very gentle swimming in the local warm pool once I started to make some improvement from my own ME/CFS and I believe this has helped. And my wife, who is a nurse, goes wild-water swimming in a local lake each week – but she does not have ME/CFS.
Swimming in a warm indoor pool, or a hospital hydrotherapy pool, is something that I sometimes recommend to people who have made a significant degree of improvement and want to do something more active perhaps in addition to gentle walking. Wild-water swimming is a very different situation – mainly due to immersion in what is normally cold (or very cold) water and the rapid adverse effects that this can have on various body systems, as well as on cognitive function. People really need to know about how to prepare, and the risks involved.
Health benefits for swimming or immersion in cold water have been claimed for relieving anxiety, arthritis, depression, migraines, stress, for boosting the immune system, and increasing the production of mood-enhancing/pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. However, the scientific evidence to support these wide-ranging claims is very limited. There was also a very small research study many years ago into the use of cold water baths as a possible form of treatment for ME/CFS. This research was heavily criticised at the time and has never been validated. In conclusion, I do not believe that wild-water swimming, or cold water immersion therapy, is a suitable form of management for people with ME/CFS.
Medical Matters is for information purposes only. The answers provided by Dr Shepherd and the ME Association’s other expert advisers should not be construed as medical advice. We recommend that any information you deem relevant is discussed with your GP as soon as possible. It is important to obtain advice from a GP who is in charge of your clinical care, who knows you well, and who can consider other likely causes for symptoms. Seek personalised medical advice whenever a new symptom arises, or an existing symptom worsens. Don't assume that new or worsened symptoms are a result of having ME/CFS.