Ice baths are a popular and time-honored way to relieve stiffness and soreness. Although most people don’t enjoy jumping in a tub of cold water, there are reasons to get over your trepidation and take the plunge.
Upon a quick review of the evidence, the answer to the question posed in the title is obvious. Athletes use ice baths mainly for the purpose of relieving sore muscles after a hard bout of physical exertion. One can see how a professional athlete, who has to perform on someone else’s schedule, would derive great benefit from such a practice. However, we have a debate here, and we think it is worthwhile to dive in and see if we can determine the truth.
The Debate: Do Ice Baths Really Work?
There is no doubt that a cold bath makes you feel better when your muscles are sore and tired. However, this may be due only to the numbing effect of the cold water, and may not provide any real healing benefits. Since cold produces numbness, and numbness reduces your sense of touch, it might be that this practice is only useful for its mental benefits.
We can find plenty of articles that explore this topic, but most of them consist largely of opinion. We could dive into this aspect of things, and write a long and boring argument in favor of (or against) this practice. However, that would make for an article that is no better than most of the others. Unlike the others, we want to answer your question with hard scientific evidence.
A Review Of The Evidence:
The scientific term for an ice bath is “cold water immersion.” If you want to dive deeply into this topic, just enter that term in a search engine, and that should get you started. For those who don’t have that kind of time, however, we will review four particular studies, chosen at random for fairness, and use those as the basis of our conclusion.
Study One: “Effects of cold water immersion on the symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage,” by Roger Eston and Daniel Peters
This study was performed on a group of 15 women and measured the effects of cold water immersion on various aspects of their post-workout muscle health. The women were divided into two groups, one of which used an ice bath to relieve post-workout stress.
Both groups were measured repeatedly throughout the process. Researchers checked their reported levels of muscle tenderness, their muscle creatine levels, their range of motion at the elbow, their overall strength, and the size of their upper arms. By doing this, they determined the effect that the ice bath had on all of these factors. They found that the results were somewhat mixed.
The cold water bath was effective when it came to restoring flexibility and range of motion after a workout. The cold water group showed a greater range of motion at the elbow, indicating that their muscles were not as stiff as those of the control group. It was also effective in helping to restore normal creatine levels more quickly than the control group. However, they found that cold water immersion had no real effect on muscle tenderness and didn’t allow the test subjects to recover their full strength any faster.
The level of creatine in a person’s bloodstream indicates both their level of muscle development and also their level of kidney health. As creatine is an amino acid, it would be very hard for the body to overdose. After you have exerted yourself in a serious way, those levels will be somewhat reduced, as your body uses some of the creatine in your bloodstream to aid muscle recovery. It would seem that cold water aids the replenishment of muscle creatine, which suggests that it helps to restore a normal muscular state in short order.
Study Two: “Cold Water Immersion: The Gold Standard for Exertional Heatstroke Treatment,” by Douglas Casa and Brendon McDermott
This study might seem to be a little off-topic, as it does not relate to the use of ice baths in an athletic context. However, it does relate to the use of cold water for therapeutic purposes and is thus relevant to our discussion. In this study, they discuss the use of cold water immersion for the treatment of heatstroke.
Noting other studies, the authors point out that athletes are at greater risk for exertional heatstroke than most other people. Soldiers and manual laborers are also named as people who are more likely to have this problem. All three of these people have one thing in common: A job that requires them to perform at top physical capacity, even when the weather is hot.
Several ancient methods of heatstroke treatment are examined next. Some, like the old Roman practice of rubbing yourself with wine and olive oil, at least make sense. Others, like the medieval practice of bloodletting, are obviously no good. Either way, jumping into some cold water seems like a better solution than smearing yourself with all that oil and wine.
The use of an ice bath is an obvious way to treat heatstroke because it will lower the body temperature more quickly than just about anything else. This part is obvious, but we are also interested to see that this method was found to have less extensive side effects than the alternative methods of cooling. Thus, we can see that the ice bath is a highly therapeutic process and that it’s especially effective for cooling yourself off after a hot, sweaty workout session.
Study Three: “Alternating hot and cold water immersion for athlete recovery: a review,” by Darryl Cochrane
This study is worth exploring because it presents us with an intriguing possibility. Since both hot and cold water have been found to have certain therapeutic benefits, these researchers decided to investigate the possibility of using both at the same time. By alternating between a hot water bath and a cold water bath, they hoped to obtain the benefits of both. The stated purpose of this study was to find more effective methods of athlete recovery.
The study notes that this type of therapy is already being used in the medical field. Specifically, physical therapists seem to be using this method, which suggests that it yields good results. There isn’t much evidence for the use of this method in an athletic recovery context, and these researchers were hoping to provide that.
Most of the experimental evidence gathered by these researchers showed that the practice of cold water immersion had a very therapeutic effect on the muscle recovery rates of the test subjects. They found that it slowed down the metabolism of the test subjects and that it was particularly effective when applied immediately. Based on this evidence, it would seem that cold water immersion therapy needs to be done as soon as possible once an injury has occurred.
Cold water causes your blood vessels to constrict in a process called vasoconstriction. Hot water, on the other hand, causes your blood vessels to expand in a process called vasodilation. Alternating hot-and-cold water therapy makes use of both these mechanisms to prevent an injured body part from swelling.
Study Four: “Is the ice bath finally melting? Cold water immersion is no greater than active recovery upon local and systemic inflammatory cellular stress in humans,” by R. Allan and C. Mawhinny
The long and very specific title of this study makes its position clear. Their results indicate that cold water immersion therapy is effective in reducing post-exercise muscle inflammation, but they also found that active recovery was equally effective for this purpose.
When we review this study, one of the first things we notice is that it cites a number of other studies, and all of them seem to be in agreement on several key points. First, they found that the cold water treatment did not produce any significant difference in cellular stress or muscle inflammation. However, we feel that these results are being presented out of context.
This study did indeed find cold water immersion to be less than effective, but they also only measured for two specific factors. Thus, their study was not quite as complete as we would have liked it to be. Also, the people doing this test are mostly relying on the conclusions of others, and not on any work that they have done.
Conclusion: What Is The Verdict?
Now it’s time to analyze all this nerdy stuff and see if we can bring it to a logical conclusion for you. Our first study found that ice bath therapy works very well for certain things, and is ineffective for certain other things. Specifically, it helped people to recover their flexibility and muscle protein levels but didn’t have any noticeable effect on tenderness or strength.
Our second study found that cold water immersion was very effective when used as a treatment for overheating in athletes and others. They also found that it was less harsh on the body than other methods, and restored normal conditions with greater speed. Our third study was also based on medical practice, this time looking at the use of hot and cold water immersion.
This practice seems to be very effective, and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. It’s not quite the same as an ice bath, but it proves (once again) the therapeutic value of such a thing. As for our fourth study, it spoke against the use of cold water immersion, but only on the basis that there are more effective methods. Also, they only measured two specific qualities, and this would seem to confirm the idea that cold water immersion is effective for certain things and ineffective for others.
Overall, an ice bath is not going to remove your injuries, nor will it help you to recover your full strength more quickly. However, it will definitely reduce the stiffness and soreness of your muscles, and will definitely help to reduce any swelling that might occur. At the very least, we would say that this method is a great way to treat muscle injury. Of course, it has to be applied right away in order to have its full effect.
We hope that we have settled this question in a way that is satisfactory to you. We have made every effort to give you the real story based on the real evidence, instead of lecturing you with pages and pages of opinion. Let those other fools waste their time reading opinions while you get the facts. If you have found our work to be helpful, we hope that you will hit that “F” button below and follow us on Facebook to learn even more.