Ice baths have long been used by professional athletes to soothe their sore, overworked muscles after intense exercise.
Now, with cold therapy gaining popularity in spas and sports medicine clinics alike, more people are finding themselves wondering if at-home ice baths can provide them with similar benefits.
It turns out that the answer is complicated: While ice baths can help with certain things, they can also have negative effects or simply be ineffective in other situations.
Here, we’ll examine the pros and cons of ice baths.
On the plus side, ice baths:
- Reduce muscle damage from endurance and high-intensity workouts.
- Reduce inflammation and swelling.
- Numb pain.
- May improve your mood.
On the other hand, however, ice baths:
- Can make tight or stiff muscles feel worse.
- Can reduce the efficacy of strength training.
- Can be dangerous for those with cardiac conditions.
- Carry a risk of hypothermia if used incorrectly.
Let’s take a closer look at each pro and con so you can better determine if ice baths will be helpful for you.
Ice Bath Pros
Despite the unpleasant sensation of plunging yourself into a tub of ice water, ice baths are known to have a few benefits. They can:
Reduce Muscle Damage From Certain Workouts
In 2016, the journal Sports Medicine published a study, “What are the Physiological Mechanisms for Post-Exercise Cold Water Immersion in the Recovery from Prolonged Endurance and Intermittent Exercise?”
That study found that ice baths can be helpful after certain types of workouts, but not others.
Specifically, people who have just completed a total-body endurance workout or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may stand to benefit from ice baths’ ability to lower the high body temperatures caused by grueling activity.
Reduce Inflammation and Swelling
According to a 2013 study, “Influence of postexercise cooling on muscle oxygenation and blood volume changes,” published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, postexercise ice baths reduce inflammation and increase blood oxygen levels.
Additionally, publications like Men’s Journal and BBC Sport claim that ice baths can help flush muscles of lactic acid, a substance that naturally occurs during exercise and after prolonged activity can cause uncomfortable burning sensations.
These effects also apply to muscles which haven’t been exercising: Since cold temperatures cause blood vessels to constrict, many types of inflammation and swelling can be reduced with an ice bath.
Numb Certain Types of Pain
If you’ve ever used an ice pack on a minor injury like a sprain, you already know that ice can quickly cause the affected area to become less painful. This is because cold temperatures have the ability to numb nerve endings, meaning that fewer pain signals get sent to your brain.
For this reason, ice baths can be useful in treating the painful symptoms of arthritis, tendonitis, sciatica, pinched nerves and fibromyalgia.
Improve Your Mood
An unexpected benefit of ice baths is their potential to improve your mood. In fact, they may even be a viable treatment for depression.
In 2008, the journal Medical Hypotheses published an article called “Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression.”
In the article, researchers observed that cold hydrotherapy — i.e., bathing or showering in cold water — is known to increase blood levels of beta-endorphin, a natural pain reliever, mood booster and anxiety reducer that’s produced by the pituitary gland.
The researchers also noted that cold hydrotherapy increases the brain’s release of noradrenaline, a brain chemical that’s often too low in people with depression.
A 2014 article published in Psychology Today, “A Cold Splash–Hydrotherapy for Depression and Anxiety,” explained that the mood-boosting effects of cold water may have something to do with the human body’s extreme sensitivity to cold.
The density of cold receptors in the skin is thought to be several times higher than that of heat receptors. Thus, ice baths and other types of cold hydrotherapy can act as a shock to the nervous system and trigger the release of feel-good hormones.
Ice Bath Cons
When used improperly or at the wrong time, ice baths may actually have a negative effect on your body. They can:
Can Cause Hypothermia
Any kind of exposure to extreme cold comes with the risk of hypothermia, and ice baths are no exception. A 2009 article from Scientific American, “Hypothermia: How long can someone survive in frigid water?” explained that people submerged in 41℉ can go for 10 to 20 minutes before they start to experience loss of coordination and strength, which is the first sign of hypothermia.
Many specialists agree that ice baths should have a temperature of 50 to 59℉, so to be on the safe side, you should limit your ice baths to no more than 10 to 15 minutes.
Make Tight or Stiff Muscles Worse
While ice is effective at numbing certain types of pain and reducing muscle inflammation, it can exacerbate pain from tight or stiff muscles.
This is because cold doesn’t relax muscles: Instead, it causes muscles to contract. When applied to stiff or tight muscles, it can make your pain worse, especially when applied to a trigger point like the lower back or neck, according to a 2017 article from Pain Science, “The Great Ice vs. Heat Confusion Debacle.”
So, the next time your shoulders are feeling stiff or your back seizes up, stay away from ice baths and opt for a soothing warm bath instead.
Reduce the Efficacy of Strength Training
In 2015, the Journal of Physiology published an article titled “Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signaling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training.”
In the study, researchers found that ice baths are far from effective when used after strength training.
In fact, detailed muscle biopsies revealed that postexercise ice baths can result in smaller long-term muscle gains. In other words, ice baths may actually stunt muscle growth.
Pose a Risk to People With Cardiac Conditions
Regardless of their other potential benefits, ice baths and other types of immediate cold exposure can be risky for those with a heart condition.
As we mentioned earlier, ice baths can act as a shock to the body and have a marked effect on blood flow. However, this isn’t always a good thing.
A 2014 article from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, “How Cold Weather Affects Your Heart and Circulatory System,” explained that since cold constricts blood vessels and reduces blood flow to the arms and legs, it becomes harder for the heart pump blood through those constricted vessels.
As a result, both blood pressure and heart rate increase when your body is exposed to cold, especially when that exposure is immediate as it is with an ice bath.
So, if you have heart disease, have had a heart attack before or have any other type of heart condition, refrain from taking ice baths and remember to dress warmly when it’s cold outside.
Ice Baths: The Bottom Line
Depending on your particular needs, ice baths can provide a wide array of benefits. However, they can also have negative effects if you’re not careful.
You’ll likely benefit from ice baths if:
- You’ve just finished an endurance or HIIT workout.
- You have inflamed or swollen muscles.
- You’re looking to numb nerve pain.
- You’re looking for a natural mood booster.
You shouldn’t take ice baths if:
- You have tight or stiff muscles.
- You’ve just finished a strength training workout.
- You have any type of heart condition.
Plus, always make sure to keep the length of your ice bath at 15 minutes or less.
Though conflicting advice about ice baths is abundant, if you’re armed with scientific information, you’ll be able to make a smart decision about whether ice baths are right for you.