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Health & Exercise Forum

Ice Baths - Benefits and Risks

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Jan 29, 2024

What is an Ice Bath?

Ice baths have become a new trend or fad in health and fitness, especially among elite athletes and some celebrities. However, it is far from a new treatment modality. In fact, the Ancient Greeks employed cold-water immersion for fever, pain relief, relaxation and socialization. In addition, Hippocrates documented the use of cold for medicinal purposes for its analgesic benefits. 

Ice baths, a type of cryotherapy, is also referred to as cold water immersion (CWI) or cold water therapy. This involves immersing your body in ice water for approximately 5-15 minutes from the neck down at 50-59 degrees. The ice baths are commonly used for pain, delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and inflammation and mood elevation. 

In theory, the cold water lowers the temperature of your skin and body by vasoconstriction (narrow) of the blood vessels. When you get out of the cold, water the vasodilatation (widen) of the blood vessels. Immediately, this brings fresh oxygen and nutrient-rich blood back to the tissues to warm the body and in the process, reduce pain, inflammation and promote healing.

Types of Cold Water Therapy

  • Ice Bath/Cold Water Immersion (CWI) - immersing your body in ice water for approximately 5-15 minutes from the neck down at a temperature of 50-59 degrees.
  • Cold Showers – Standing under a cold shower at the coldest setting (as close to 50-59 degrees as possible) for 5-15 minutes. It is often recommended as a good introduction to CWI.
  • Contrast Water Therapy (Contrast Baths) – Alternating between soaking or showering in hot water for a period of time followed by cold water for the same time (3-5 minutes). The period of time is flexible as some studies suggest alternating hot and cold at one minute intervals.
  • Wim Hof Method – established by a Dutch athlete who recommends incorporating breathing techniques and meditation with CWI.

Purported Ice Bath Benefits

  • Pain Management – cold water therapy leads to vasoconstriction (narrowing the blood vessels) which can reduce swelling and inflammation associated with pain. Moreover, cold creates an analgesic effect to the skin to aide in pain control.
  • Reduces Muscle Soreness – cold water therapy has been found to reduce muscle soreness one hour after intense exercise including delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS0, however, strength was compromised following CWI. Moreover, it is important to note that studies showed heat therapy had similar results as CWI.
  • Improves Mood and Alertness – Some studies with small sample sizes have demonstrated that CWI improved self-esteem and alertness, reduced muscle tension, anger and nervousness. However, there was no difference soaking in 55 degree water verses 68 degrees for 18 to 20 minutes. Also, the studies were exclusively performed on healthy individuals.

Potential Side Effects of Ice Baths

If you have the following health conditions, ice baths may not be the best therapeutic modality for you. Before you consider trying an ice bath, consult with your physician to avoid potentially serious problems:

  • Cold Hives – itchy welts, swollen lips and throat when your skin comes in contact with something too cold.
  • Heart or Lung Conditions – when vasoconstriction of the blood vessels occurs from the cold, your heart rate and blood pressure increase dramatically. The excess strain on your heart can be dangerous, especially if you have compromised cardiopulmonary function. It can also lead to an irregular electrical rhythm (arrhythmia), which can be serious.
  • Raynaud’s Syndrome – lack of blood flow to the fingers and toes cause a hypersensitivity and cause them to turn white or blue. It can lead to tissue damage.

In Conclusion: What the Science Says

While some studies have shown that subjects report less muscle soreness following CWI when compared  to rest, most studies suggest that the reported effects are placebo. Also, reports of improved circulation, reduced inflammation and improved recovery or performance has not been scientifically validated. In view of this, it is recommended that those considering the use of CWI for pain and inflammation management, reduced muscle soreness, and mood elevation, should consult their physician to determine if the potential risks are worth the purported benefits.

SOURCES: nih;;;

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This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy in Scranton and Clarks Summit. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. For all of Dr. Mackarey's articles, visit our exercise forum!