Professional athletes like NBA players and record-holding British marathoner, Paula Radcliffe, have famously used ice baths to reduce inflammation and to speed recovery for years. They’ve ushered in the ice bath age practice to other exercise enthusiasts, weekend warriors and runners, armed with several bags of ice from the grocery store. But before you shiver miserably in your bathtub, are there any real benefits that make it worth the icy agony?
Cold Hard Facts Are Few
Medical experts aren’t sure how or why it works. Intense exercise is believed to cause microtrauma, or tiny tears in muscle fibers. This damage is what stimulates muscle cell repair and causes them to get stronger. But not without the familiar aches and pains, aka DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) that occurs 24 to 72 hours after exercise.
Ice baths are thought to constrict blood vessels, flush waste products like lactic acid and reduce inflammation from microtears in muscle fibers from exercise. Not to mention, induce wailing, teeth gnashing and crying. Even though many athletes suffered during their training session, they endured more suffering in the icy water if it meant less soreness and quicker recovery time.
But there doesn’t seem to be much research to support the benefits of ice baths. According to the New York Times, here are some pros and cons to consider before you take the plunge.
There is evidence that cold therapy can speed healing compared to doing nothing. The newest study from The Cochrane Library indicates that cold water immersion therapy can reduce soreness up to 20 percent.
Well, duh – it’s f***ing freezing!
But seriously, ice baths aren’t totally without side effects. Sudden immersion in freezing cold water can raise heart rate (tachycardia) and cause irregular heart beats (arrhythmia) and raise blood pressure. Those with preexisting heart conditions should proceed with caution. To avoid hypothermia, the duration of the ice bath shouldn’t exceed ten minutes.
Lastly, there aren’t any comparison studies contrasting ice therapy’s effectiveness against other remedies like stretching, ibuprofen or compression clothing.
THE COLD HARD TRUTH
While evidence suggests that ice baths may be better than doing nothing (passive rest), the evidence is inconclusive on whether the agony is worth that 20% reduction in muscle soreness when similar relief can probably be achieved by a good post workout stretch or popping a couple of Advil. And nothing is a substitute for good old fashioned recovery methods like adequate sleep and proper nutrition.
But as in all things in life, your mileage may vary and if you can stand the cold treatment or have had great success with ice baths, please share your comments below!
Minsun Park is a blogger, writer and a black belt in taekwondo who gets her ass handed to her daily by her two sons. She’s written for iVillage, SheKnows, ePregnancy and is featured in “The Hot Mom’s Handbook” by Jessica Denay. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter: @MinsunPark