What is Cold Water Therapy?

You might have seen fitness influencers jumping into ice baths all over social media recently. While this may seem like a new trend, people have been using hydrotherapy to improve their health and alleviate certain conditions for centuries.

Cold water therapy, which is a form of hydrotherapy,  involves the use of cold water for treating pain and inflammation. It can be done in open water, in a cold pool, or even in your bathtub at home.

Get ready to learn all about why cold water therapy is effective, how it works, and when it can be useful for boosting your overall health.

Cold Water Therapy: How Does it Work?

Considered its own branch of alternative medicine, hydrotherapy can be dated all the way back to the 12th century, when it was first used for health conditions such as manic depressive psychosis and even insomnia.

Cold water therapy is the general term for using cold exposure or cold water immersion for therapeutic purposes. These purposes usually include things like:

  • Alleviating pain
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Increasing blood flow

There are a number of ways you can take advantage of cold water therapy. Here are just a few of the most popular methods:

a graphic showing the types of cold water therapy

Cold Showers

The practice of taking cold showers has been around for thousands of years, and it’s thought to boost energy, support immune health, and even improve mood. One study’s findings appear to support some of these claims, though more research is needed in this area.

Ice Baths

Ice baths are a type of cold bath made from. These can be done in a cold body of water, in your bathtub, or in a specialized ice bath vessel.

To take an ice bath, you will submerge your whole body or specific parts of the body in ice water. This method is thought to relieve muscle pain and increase blood flow, and is often used for recovery by athletes.

However, research is currently limited in this area and more is needed before offering standard guides. Some research even suggests that post-workout ice baths may show no significant improvement in recovery compared to active recovery.

Hot-to-Cold Immersion

Hot-to-cold immersion involves alternating between hot and cold temperature water. This can involve cold water swimming followed by a dip into a jacuzzi.

Contrast showers are another type of hot-to-cold immersion and involve alternating between hot and cold water during showers. This method is also a popular option among athletes for enhanced recovery.

However, there is limited research on this as a tool for post-exercise treatment and more research is needed before determining if it is as beneficial as some might hope.

What is Cold Water Therapy Good For?

So is cold hydrotherapy really as effective as people claim it to be? Cold water therapy may be helpful for a number of different purposes such as:

a diagram of the benefits of cold therapy

  • May help alleviate pain
  • May impact blood flow
  • May help to reduce inflammation
  • May help support immune response

Let’s take a closer look at what the scientific evidence has shown about each of these points. Here are four potential health benefits of cold water therapy.

1) May Help Support Muscle Recovery

Some research shows that cold water therapy may help to support muscle recovery. A meta analysis investigating contrast water therapy (CWT) and cold water immersion (CWI) found the following:

  • Both types of therapy were helpful for muscle recovery for some athletes following team sporting events.
  • CWI may be especially effective for neuromuscular recovery.
  • Both of these water therapies led to an improvement in how tired the athletes felt after training.
  • CWI improved neuromuscular recovery, but did not change the athletes’ perception of muscle soreness.
  • CWT also did not improve their perception of muscle soreness.

On the other hand, another study found that while cold water therapy can be helpful in reducing inflammation, it may not be more effective than active recovery when it comes to muscle inflammation and recovery.

Some studies have also highlighted concerns related to potential risks of cold therapy for athletes, stating that this therapy may have some unintended negative effects for certain people.

Whether cold water therapy can be beneficial for your muscles more likely depends on your unique body and needs and how it fits into the overall context of your recovery approach. You may want to discuss which options would be more helpful for you with your doctor.

2) May Improve Feelings of Depression

a man inside an ice bath

Some studies show that cold water immersion or cold plunges can be beneficial for mood. One case study found that it can help to alleviate feelings of depression. However, it’s important to also note that this study included other variables that could have impacted mood independent from the cold, such as physical activity itself.

Other research has shown that cold water therapy may help support mental health by triggering many electrical impulses. These impulses can then lead to anti-depressive effects.

Nonetheless, there is very limited research in this area and more research is needed to confirm these benefits and fully explore how the effects of cold water immersion might provide such benefits.

3) May Benefit Immune Health

Cold water therapy may help to support your immune system. Researchers have investigated whether a noninfectious stimulus such as cold water immersion could stimulate the immune system to be more active.

According to this study:

  • Short-term cold water therapy increased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, T cells, and catecholamines all of which help to fight pathogens.
  • Short-term cold water immersion also helped stimulate the immune system by inducing shivers, which can help the body fight off pathogens.

However, these were also identified as stress-induced changes and therefore, it’s possible that the short-term perceived benefit may be outdone by a longer-term detrimental effect as can be associated with chronic stressors applied over time.

It is well-documented that short-term stress exposure may have very different effects from chronic stress exposure over longer periods of time.

4) May Impact Blood Flow

two girls taking an ice bath in a snowy river

Cold water therapy can also influence blood flow in different areas of the body. Hydrotherapy in general may increase blood flow to certain parts of the body, while cold water therapy may decrease blood flow, particularly cerebral blood flow in the case of full-body immersion.

Hydrotherapy in general may be positive for both neuromuscular and cardiovascular health. However, the temperature of the water may alter the outcome and more research is needed to determine what temperatures lead to which outcomes.

How Long Should an Ice Bath Be For Athletes?

Whether you’re a professional athlete, fitness enthusiast, or simply someone who plays sports from time to time, cold water exposure may be one way to support your recovery.

But how long should an ice bath be? While there is no clear benchmark at the moment, one very small case study found that spending five to 10 minutes in an ice bath demonstrated results.

However, some people can go up to 20 minutes in an ice bath, but that may depend on your tolerance level and unique body. For sore muscles, a longer ice bath may not always be more beneficial. It’s important to remember that this is still an area of very limited research.

It’s important to listen to your body. If you’re unsure how long you should take an ice bath for, you may consult a healthcare professional for guidance.

How to do Cold Water Therapy at Home

Because cold water therapy techniques vary, there are lots of ways you can do them from the comfort of your own home. However, it’s always important to consult your doctor to determine what is right for you.

The American Heart Association voices some concern over the potential health risks of things like ice baths and cold plunges and states they may not be for everyone.

Here is an overview of some of the most common methods used.

Ice Pack

  • Grab an appropriately-sized plastic freezer bag such as a ziplock.
  • Fill the bag with ice.
  • Make sure there is enough ice to lay over the entire affected area.
  • Place the ice pack over the affected area for 10 minutes unless otherwise directed by your doctor or healthcare practitioner.

Ice Bath

a man in an ice bath

  • To prepare your bathtub for an ice bath, place a stopper in your bathtub’s drain.
  • Fill your bathtub with cold water about to about half the space of the tub. You’ll need the rest of the space for the ice.
  • Pour ice into the bathtub and fill your tub 80 percent of the way.
  • Immerse yourself in the ice bath for a time frame approved by your doctor.

Contrast Shower

a girl taking a shower

  • Step into the shower and turn on the hot water for two to three minutes.
  • Once those three minutes are up, turn the water to cold.
  • Shower in cold water for one minute.
  • Repeat two to three times.

Is Cold Water Therapy Good for Metabolic Health?

Cold water therapy can impact your body in different ways. As we’ve seen throughout this article, it can affect your nervous system including cardiovascular system. Some of these effects may be beneficial for some people, but some may not.

One study found that while swimming in cold water increased diastolic pressure modestly, it did not appear to lead to a significant overall increase in systolic blood pressure or overall blood pressure. However, the effect will depend on your unique body.

Other research suggests that cold water therapy can be beneficial for other aspects of metabolic health. Cold exposure may even help to support healthy glucose levels and improve insulin sensitivity.

However, more research is needed to fully understand the benefits of cold water therapy on metabolic health and to identify for whom this may be contraindicated.

Are There Any Risks to Cold Water Therapy?

If you’ve previously suffered cardiovascular conditions such as heart attack, you may want to discuss the effects of cold water therapy on your cardiovascular health with your doctor. Hot-to-cold immersion may not be safe for people with certain cardiac conditions.

Other studies indicate that cold water immersion may impair attention, executive function, and working memory or memory used to complete short-term tasks. As always, you should consult a healthcare professional before trying cold water therapy.

When is Warm Water Therapy Better?

a girl taking a warm bath

Warm water therapy is another type of hydrotherapy that can be beneficial in certain instances.

Warm water therapy leads to vasodilation, which opens your blood vessels and leads to increased blood flow to the areas. Because of this mechanism, researchers recommend warm water therapy for:

  • Relaxing muscles and improving mobility
  • Reducing muscle spasms
  • Supporting healthy blood pressure

For reducing delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, both hot and cold treatment can be effective in reducing soreness and pain.

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