Cold-water immersion, also known as an ice bath, is a recovery regimen usually done following intense exercise where you dunk yourself in a tub of cold water for 10 to 15 minutes. From pro athletes like Lebron James to mega superstars like Lady Gaga, it seems like everyone is plunging into the ice bath trend. Cryotherapy centers are even popping up in cities across the country! But is this type of cold therapy a good idea for average weekend warriors and runners?
Evan Werk, MD, a sports and family physician at Banner - University Sports Medicine and Concussion Specialists, said it depends. “Cold baths are definitely picking up popularity, but the method isn’t without some controversy,” Dr. Werk said. “They can certainly soothe sore muscles, but more research is needed before we can make a firm conclusion.”
If you are curious if this is an effective recovery method, here are some potential health benefits and drawbacks to help you decide if it’s worth taking the ice bath plunge.
The potential benefits of ice baths
- Reduces swelling and inflammation. When you sit in cold water, your blood vessels constrict. It is thought that this constriction improves post-workout swelling and inflammation which may cause pain and muscle destruction after activity.
- Soothes sore muscles. There is some initial evidence that, compared to typical rest, cold water immersion can be effective at reducing delayed onset muscle soreness after intense physical activity. This is thought to be due to the pain-relieving effect of cold water.
- May improve performance. Though the evidence is somewhat mixed, most athletes use cold water immersion hoping to improve their performance. There is some promise for improvement in sprint speed and muscle strength, though this is likely to depend on the specific protocol, such as temperature and length of immersion, as well as other factors like nutrition and hydration.
Some possible drawbacks
- Hypothermia and frost bite. Exposure to extreme heat or freezing cold for prolonged periods may not good for the body. If you take a dip, staying in an ice bath for more than 15 minutes is not recommended. Listen to your body. If you notice you are getting very tired or your skin is changing colors, it’s time to get out.
- Painful experience. Getting into an icy bath isn’t for the faint of heart—especially if you get in quickly. If the pain doesn’t subside after a couple of minutes, either add more water or get out.
- Heart disease. If you have a cardiovascular disease, check with your doctor first.
“Since there is no clear-cut yes or no answer on ice baths, the best way to figure out if you like them is to try them,” Dr. Werk said. “If they don’t work, don’t worry. There are plenty of scientifically-proven methods that do.”
If you want to take an ice bath at home, Dr. Werk shared these safety guidelines:
- Limit exposure. Limit your time in the tub to 15 minutes tops
- Don’t go it alone. Have someone supervise you the first few times.
- Know your body. If you are sensitive to cold or have a cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, consult your doctor first.
- Wear clothes. This will help protect sensitive areas.
- Go waist deep. Start by only immersing the lower half of your body, rather than your full body.
Questions or concerns? Schedule an appointment with a Banner Health expert to see if ice baths could work for you.