Frostbite: a systematic review on freezing cold injuries in a military environment

BMJ Mil Health. 2023 Feb 7:e002171. doi: 10.1136/military-2022-002171. Online ahead of print.


Background: Military practice or deployment in extreme conditions includes risks, dangers and rare disorders. One of the challenges is frostbite; however, current literature does not provide an overview of this condition in a military context. This review aims to map the incidence, risk factors and outcome of frostbite in military casualties in the armed forces.

Methods: A systematic literature search on frostbite (freezing cold injuries) in military settings from 1995 to the present was performed. A critical appraisal of the included articles was conducted. Data on incidence, risk factors, treatment and outcome were extracted.

Results: Fourteen studies were included in our systematic review. Most studies of frostbite in a military setting were published nearly half a century ago. Frostbite incidence has declined from 7% to around 1% in armed forces in arctic regions but could be as high as 20% in small-scale arctic manoeuvres. Overall and military-specific risk factors for contracting frostbite were identified.

Conclusion: During inevitable arctic manoeuvres, frostbite is a frequently diagnosed injury in service members. Postfreezing symptoms often persist after severe frostbite injury, which decreases employability within the service. Over time, military practice has changed considerably, and modern protective materials have been introduced; therefore, re-evaluation and future study in the military field are appropriate, preferably with other North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners.

Keywords: altitude medicine; musculoskeletal disorders; primary care; trauma management; wound management.