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Non-freezing cold injury: A legacy of the Falklands conflict which still affects service personnel 40 years on

June 14 marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Falklands conflict. This conflict and its aftermath still run deep within the minds of the public and the veterans who valiantly fought during it.

Unfortunately, 255 service personnel lost their lives in the conflict but it also took a toll on those who returned and suffered life-altering injuries such as post traumatic stress disorder. Another issue that was investigated significantly as a result of the Falklands conflict was that of non-freezing cold injury (NFCI).

What is non-freezing cold injury?

Almost everyone has heard of trench foot, which is synonymous with the First World War and the conditions that soldiers were subjected to on the front line. While many believe that such a condition no longer affects our troops it's sadly a very real and present danger, although it's now more commonly known as NFCI.

The Army has had problems with this condition in almost every warzone in which service personnel have been exposed to cold and wet conditions and it continues to be an issue to this day.

During the Falklands the Royal Marines took part in a 56 mile yomp across boggy terrain, wind, rain, sleet and low temperatures to reach their objective of Port Stanley. All those who took part were later tested by Dr Oakley, ex-head of the Cold Injury Clinic at the Institute of Naval Medicine, and every single one was believed to have suffered a NFCI.

NFCI research

The MoD and Dr Oakley spent the next 20-plus years investigating the condition and undertaking additional research to try and limit the impact of this poorly understood condition. As a result, the Institute of Naval Medicine set up a cold injury clinic which became the lead institution in diagnosing and treating this debilitating condition,

Despite this NFCI continued to be a major problem throughout the early 2000’s due to a lack of knowledge and training on the condition for commanders, troops and medics on the ground. It was only in around 2006 that training on the condition started and additional protective clothing was supplied by The Army.

However, despite this it's really only in recent years that the British Military has taken substantive pro-active and effective steps to help minimise the number of individuals developing this condition.

Unfortunately, there is no single diagnostic test that proves an individual has an NFCI and it can only be diagnosed through the exclusion of other conditions such as Raynaud’s disease along with a history of cold exposure. Raynaud’s is a condition which has very similar symptoms but is markedly different in presentation. Crucially though, the treatment for this can actually make an NFCI worse.

There are now a number of clinics around the country dealing with the diagnosis and treatment of NFCI and the understanding within the military is far better than it has ever been. However, it's still a significant problem that impacts the effectiveness of The British Army.

Symptoms of NFCI

Service personnel with a potential NFCI usually complain of a wide range of symptoms including, but not limited to, pins and needles, numbness in extremities (usually when exposed to cold conditions), pain upon rewarming and constantly cold hands and feet. In addition to this there is a stigma attached to the condition that those suffering from NFCI are malingerers or weak, which unfortunately prevents service personnel reporting these conditions until it is too late to treat.

Lessons must be learnt

These injuries can have a very serious, debilitating impact on victims, leading them to suffer sensitivity to the cold and chronic pain which can affect them for the rest of their lives. Quick and accurate diagnosis is incredibly important and if it's not treated immediately, it almost always leads to a medical discharge.

In this day and age it seems unthinkable that service personnel would be let down despite The Army being well aware of such conditions.

At Irwin Mitchell we've acted for hundreds of service personnel suffering from this condition since 2004 We're keen for lessons to be learnt and for more to be done to ensure soldiers are protected from this condition and supported properly and without stigma when diagnosed. 

This includes training for the freezing conditions and the provision of the correct and sufficient cold weather clothing to prevent an injury which has been around for the better part of 100 years.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting members of the Armed Forces affected by NFCI and other military injuries on our website.