Do Ice Baths and Cold Immersion Actually Do Anything?

From post-game sports routines, after-workout rituals at the gym, and even up to Kevin Hart’s online show called “Cold as Balls,” Ice Baths, also known as Cold Immersion, has now seemingly evolved into a fitness enthusiast’s common rite after a day’s exercise.

Admittedly, ice baths and cold immersions certainly don’t have the charm of a nice warm bubble bath on a  cold winter’s day. It does, however, work wonders on aching muscles after a strenuous workout session. Studies have shown that while taking a dip into bone-chilling tubs of water isn’t exactly a day at the spa, the activity does yield positive results for athletes’ aching muscles.

For decades, the idea of using ice baths to relieve tired muscles has been the drill for anyone who had just come from a good exercise routine. However, there has been some skepticism around the practice in recent years. In 2017, a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information claimed that ice baths have no substantial difference from a ten-minute session of low-intensity exercise on a stationary bike.

Still, many experts in the medical and athletic fields believe that ice baths remain to be a viable recovery option. An orthopedic surgeon working with The Centers for Advanced Orthopedics, Dr. A. Brion Gardner, for one, still believes that ice baths are recommendable for athletes and fitness enthusiasts who undergo intensive workout routines.

“The study does not prove 100 percent that there are no benefits to ice baths… It suggests that the previously believed benefits of faster recovery, reduction of muscle and tissue damage, and improved function aren’t necessarily true,” Dr. Gardner explains.

Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic clinic director Dr. Thanu Jey has also expressed his approval of ice baths or cold immersion, saying, “there will always be research that will support both sides of this debate… Although much of the research is inconclusive, I side with (the) current best management of professional athletes who regularly use ice baths.”

Benefits of Ice Baths and Cold Immersions

The concept of ice baths has been around for a long time – reaching even ancient times. Spartans, an ancient warrior society from Greece, used to take ice baths regularly. Today, the greatest athletes of this generation, like Michael Phelps and LeBron James, still share the same after-workout routine.

Standardized into a science, ice baths or cold-water immersion (CWI) or cold hydrotherapy, means jumping into waters chilling at the temperature of 50 to 59°F (10 to 15°C); usually after working out, for about 10 to 15 mins.

But what exactly do ice baths and cold immersions do for the body that supposedly helps an athlete recover from a physical game? Read further to find out.

Relieves Muscle Aching and Soreness

According to a study in 2020, researchers observed that cold water immersion improved muscle recovery. Volleyball athletes who participated in the research were asked to undergo ice baths after their training for 16 days. 

Gardner also explains that “after an intense workout, the cold immersion can be a relief to sore, burning muscles,” as he claims that the greatest benefit of ice baths, primarily, is the fact that cold water immersions simply make the body feel better.

Another study conducted in 2016 also concluded that the athletes who had a good soak in cold water after their workout had less muscle soreness than those who did not undergo ice baths.

Aids the Central Nervous System

Gardner also claims that ice baths provide quite the assistance to a person’s central nervous system. By helping the CNS give athletes and those who go through cold water immersions get more sleep, their bodies get less fatigue and gain improved mobility due to better reaction time. Athletes who get enough sleep are also found to be more explosive in their workouts.

Researchers also concluded, through a review of hydrotherapy treatments in 2014, that cold exposure, be it ice baths or cold compresses, can enhance the capacity of the CNS – which can improve sleeping habits and boost relaxation.

Lessens Inflammatory Response and Improves Immunity

Theoretically, according to Jey, is that when the local temperature is decreased through cold water immersions after a strenuous workout, ice baths assist the body in limiting the inflammatory response to help the body recover faster.

A study conducted in 2014 also uncovered that through cold water immersion, combined with deep breathing, and meditation, people were able to impact their immune response in a positive way. Respondents who went through these mentioned measures had a stronger anti-inflammatory response when they were exposed to bacterial infection.

Superior Cooling Capabilities

Researchers performed a review on 19 different studies in 2015. It was in this review that it was proven that contact with cold water is the fastest way to cool off overheated individuals who have endured taxing workouts. Additionally, taking an ice bath can be a cause of a decrease in heat and humidity effects.

This is remarkable because in some cases, people who have put themselves through vigorous exercises where their temperatures are taken to dangerous levels can be safeguarded by quick cooling. There are a number of situations where the rapid dropping of temperatures is vital and essential.

Strengthens the Vagus Nerve

Certified strength and conditioning specialist Aurimas Juodka, CSCS, CPT, shared that one of the main benefits of ice baths is their ability to help people train the vagus nerve.

“The vagus nerve is linked with the parasympathetic nervous system, and training it can help you face stressful situations more adequately,” he explains.

A study that supports this claim was conducted in 2018. According to the results of the research, cold stimulation stimulates the vagus nerve. This results in a lower heart rate and potentially reduces stress.

Ultimately, there is more to learn about ice baths and cold immersions. It is, however, recommended and supported by some of the brightest minds in the world and is exercised in the biggest athletic stages in existence.

While it is true that there are still some questions yet to be answered. There is little contest to the benefits of ice baths and experts have attested to the value of cold water immersions as post-workout rituals for people with active lifestyles.

Admittedly, though, it is very much recommendable that you do an ice bath following guidelines and suggested time and temperature. Safety, after all, should always be the priority.

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