By Dr. Haris, Board-Certified Medical Practitioner
Did you check the Instagram story of Kim Kardashian having a dip in cold water? That’s an ice bath. Many celebrities and fitness enthusiasts, particularly athletes can be seen endorsing the amazing benefits of plunging in frigid water. Drake, Harry Styles, Lizzo, Samantha, Lady Gaga, Usain Bolt, and Christiano Ronaldo, are just to mention a few.
Though it’s a cool trend these days the idea is pretty old. The perks of having a bath in ice-cold water are long being known before these wellness gurus, celebs, and fitness enthusiasts started preaching about it on social media.
The practice dates back to the Romans and Greeks era who used to do cold water immersions for therapeutic as well as leisure purposes.  A few days back, The Guardian also published a news that during an excavation, archeologists have found an 18th century cold bath under the Bath Assembly Rooms. So, it seems like the ancient people were also very fond of this practice.
The question is what good can come from dipping yourself in some kind of cool cocktail? Let’s find out what the science has to say in this regard.
What is an Ice Bath?
Ice bath, also known as cold water immersion or cryotherapy, is a practice of submerging your body in ice cold water for 10 to 15 minutes with a temperature around 50 – 59oF. Usually, it is done after an intense workout session or arduous sports competition to ease the sore and aching muscles.
Are Ice Baths Really Worth Trying? – A Review from the Scientific Perspective
Since the beginning of this new millennium, a lot of research work has been done to explore the benefits and psychophysical impacts of ice baths. Substantial pieces of evidence can be found in the literature suggesting the remarkable therapeutic effects of cold water immersion on the body and mind.
For instance, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training has claimed that cold water immersion after doing intense training significantly improves the perception of muscle soreness and strength recovery among athletes. 
Similarly, in a 2021 review study, researchers elaborated that the constriction of blood vessels following an ice bath decreases the blood flow to the muscles and prevents the leakage of fluid and cells into the interstitial spaces. Consequently, this diminishes the likelihood of edema and inflammation that typically develop after arduous physical activity. 
Besides, anecdotal evidence can be found regarding the pain mitigation, mood elevation, and immune-boosting effects of plunging in cold water. [4, 5] According to a study, this cold water immersion causes the plasma levels of nor-epinephrine and dopamine to surge by 530% and 250%, respectively. Being hormones responsible for controlling mood and vigilance, they help you feel happy and more motivated.
However, counterclaims are also there!
A recent study published in 2017 negated the findings of the previous research as it did not find any significant improvements in muscle soreness, stress, and inflammatory response among athletes doing ice baths after resistance training 2 to 3 days a week.  Similarly, some other studies also labeled ice baths ineffective for regaining muscle strength and recovery after exercise.
Hence, both kinds of evidence can be found i.e. those in favor and those not. Besides, most of the studies, done so far, are small and do not follow any standard protocols for taking ice baths. Therefore, more research is needed to make a definite statement regarding the benefits of ice baths.
Potential Benefits of Taking the Cold Plunge
Despite mixed types of evidence, many experts do not believe that cold water immersion is a waste of time. Rather, many vows for its positive impacts on the human body and mind.
Here is the list of potential benefits of having a dip in ice-cold water;
- Relieves muscle soreness and fatigue
- Reduces inflammation
- Aids in muscle recovery
- Imparts an analgesic or numbing effect which in turn helps in alleviating pain
- Augments the body’s immunity
- Habituates your body to better deal with stressors
- Elevates the mood and mitigates the symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Helps in the prevention and treatment of exertional heat illnesses, like heat exhaustion and stroke – etc
Tips for Having a Perfect Ice Bath
Though no particular guidelines have been standardized yet, experts recommend the following tips for enjoying the optimal benefits of ice baths;
- The temperature of water should be around 10 to 15oC (50 to 59oF). Use a thermometer to monitor and balance the ice and water mixture.
- Start with a two or 5 minutes dip and work your way up to 10 to 15 minutes, but no longer than that. Spending too much time in ice-cold water can have adverse effects on the body.
- Ideally, your whole body up to the neck should be immersed in the water. However, you can start by submerging your feet and legs to habituate yourself. Once you are comfortable, you can move to the upper torso.
- For optimum effects, it is recommended to take the cold plunge soon after doing intense sports or workouts.
- After getting out of the bath, remove your wet clothes immediately and dry yourself up with a towel. Put on some warm and dry clothes after that.
Are there Any Risks Associated with the Cold Immersion?
A rare but potential risk associated with ice baths is hypothermia. It is referred to a massive drop in body temperature that may occur due to a prolonged dip. Therefore, it is generally recommended to be vigilant about the water temperature and the time you are spending in the cold water immersion.
Besides, the drastic temperature change as soon as the ice-cold water touches your body is itself a stressful thing. It constricts the blood vessels and may increase the risks of cardiac arrest and stroke in people with pre-existing blood pressure and cardiovascular problems. Such individuals should consult a doctor before taking the cold plunge.
Is Ice Bathing Recommended for Everyone?
Cold water immersions are generally recommended after an intense session of workout. Naomi Crystal, one of the leading researchers from the University of New Hampshire, said while talking about ice baths;
“Use them sparingly. Use them in tournament situations. Use them with an athlete who has done something extraordinary. But for day-to-day athletes, I wouldn’t recommend them. They’re painful, and they’re time-consuming.”
So, if you are not a sports person, or don’t do arduous exercises, then an ice bath is not for you. Moreover, people who have pre-existing medical conditions and skin hypersensitivity should also not do it. Seek medical assistance before dipping yourself in the cool cocktail.
Ice baths are all the rage nowadays due to their potential benefits, like pain mitigation, mood elevation, muscle recovery, etc; however, the existing data is inconclusive. Experts believe that taking the cold plunge the right way can render many positive effects on mind and body wellness. But caution should be taken by those with medical conditions.
- Allan R, et al. Cold for centuries: a brief history of cryotherapies to improve health, injury and post-exercise recovery. European journal of applied physiology. 2022.
- Fonseca LB, Brito CJ, Silva RJ, Silva-Grigoletto ME, da Silva WM, Franchini E. Use of cold-water immersion to reduce muscle damage and delayed-onset muscle soreness and preserve muscle power in jiu-jitsu athletes. Journal of athletic training. 2016 Jul 1;51(7):540-9.
- Bouzigon R, Dupuy O, Tiemessen I, De Nardi M, Bernard JP, Mihailovic T, Theurot D, Miller ED, Lombardi G, Dugué BM. Cryostimulation for post-exercise recovery in athletes: a consensus and position paper. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. 2021 Nov 24;3:302.
- Janský L, Pospíšilová D, Honzova S, Uličný B, Šrámek P, Zeman V, Kaminkova J. Immune system of cold-exposed and cold-adapted humans. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology. 1996 Mar;72:445-50.
- Lunt HC, Barwood MJ, Corbett J, Tipton MJ. ‘Cross‐adaptation’: habituation to short repeated cold‐water immersions affects the response to acute hypoxia in humans. The Journal of physiology. 2010 Sep 15;588(18):3605-13.
- Šrámek P, Šimečková M, Janský L, Šavlíková J, Vybíral S. Human physiological responses to immersion into water of different temperatures. European journal of applied physiology. 2000 Feb;81:436-42.
- Allan R, Mawhinney C. Is the ice bath finally melting? Cold water immersion is no greater than active recovery upon local and systemic inflammatory cellular stress in humans. The Journal of Physiology. 2017 Mar 3;595(6):1857.
Hello fitness enthusiasts! I am Dr. Haris, a dedicated certified medical practitioner, and a professional freelance medical writer with many years of experience in medical writing. My journey includes a noteworthy stint as a former house surgeon at Mayo Hospital Lahore, and now I am pursuing residency training in the field of cardiac surgery.
Being a doctor, I always find immense joy in sharing valuable insights, guiding individuals on the path to optimal health. I am proud to be a part of the Blufashion team, where I contribute by reviewing and writing articles related to everyday health and wellness. Our commitment is to empower Blufashion readers by disseminating accurate health information.
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