Ice baths have gained popularity

Ice baths have gained popularity as a way to alleviate muscle soreness, reduce inflammation, and aid in exercise recovery. But how do these purported benefits measure up to science?

Reducing inflammation and swelling: Cold temperatures in an ice bath can narrow blood vessels, decreasing blood flow to muscles and potentially reducing inflammation and swelling. Research has also shown that ice baths may be more effective at lowering post-exercise inflammation compared to other methods like compression socks.

Relieving sore muscles: The cold water in an ice bath may help to reduce inflammation and slow nerve signaling, leading to less pain. Cold water can also lower your perception of pain or reduce the amount of soreness you feel. While a systematic review found that ice baths may reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise, the studies were of low quality and the best way to use ice baths for sore muscles is not yet clear. There is also limited evidence on the effectiveness of ice baths for chronic pain and potential long-term side effects.

Aiding exercise recovery: When you get out of an ice bath, your blood vessels dilate, increasing circulation and potentially helping to remove metabolic waste that builds up during exercise. While some studies have suggested that ice baths can be an effective recovery method, a 2021 review found that they may also hinder training adaptations that allow for muscle building and improved performance, particularly for endurance workouts. Active recovery workouts may be a more reliable option for those looking to increase muscle mass or strength.

Lowering core body temperature: Ice baths can be helpful for cooling down after a workout and avoiding heat stroke or heat exhaustion. One study found that a 10-minute soak in cold water reduced core body temperature after exercise.

Supporting immunity: A small study found that combining cold water immersion with deep breathing and meditation resulted in fewer symptoms of bacterial infection compared to those who did not try these methods. It is difficult to determine the specific effectiveness of cold water immersion on the immune system.

Improving mental health: A small study found that taking a 20-minute ice bath four days a week improved quality of life in people with gout, including increased joint mobility and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. It is thought that exposing the body to cold water may trigger a stress response and activate the nervous system, potentially leading to improved mood and stress adaptation.

Making an ice bath at home is relatively simple, but it is important to keep in mind that there are no standard guidelines for the best water temperature, duration, or frequency. It is also essential to be careful and gradually acclimate your body to the cold water to avoid injury. If you are interested in trying an ice bath, it is advisable to speak with a healthcare professional or qualified trainer to determine the best approach for you.