The Truth About Ice Baths: Can They Really Improve Your Health?
June 15, 2023
Ice baths are common in the realm of sports and other physical activities, as many athletes use cold water immersion, or CWI, as a way to help reduce muscle pain and relieve soreness.
In terms of general health benefits, it remains unclear as to what ice baths can help to improve. Although, recent trends suggest that there are potential positive effects of taking a short soak in freezing cold water.
What is an ice bath?
An ice bath is when someone immerses themselves in very cold water, typically around 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Water temperature can vary from person to person, however, and some even prefer to use water as cold as 38 degrees Fahrenheit. However, it is important to start with warmer water and work up to colder temperatures to avoid risks.
- Ice baths can be done at home in a bathtub or outdoors in a designated tub, but it is recommended to only stay in for 10 to 15 minutes.
- If it is your first time, you should go easy on yourself and start small. Working your way up to longer intervals can help your body to adjust and reduce associated risks as well.
- Another “cold therapy” option is visiting a cryotherapy center.
- At these facilities, you would enter a chamber that uses various elements such as liquid nitrogen and electricity to cool a room where you would sit and endure similar effects to an ice bath.
What are the potential benefits of an ice bath?
Ice baths typically operate as a recovery method for athletes to relieve and prevent muscle pain, but as interest in ice baths grows within the general population, many people are curious about its benefits outside of physical recovery:
- Stress management: bathing in cold waters can potentially help to reduce stress levels and improve overall mood and boost relaxation
- Depression: there is a possible connection between cold water immersion and benefits for those with major depressive disorders
- Strengthened immune function
- Central nervous system: decreases fatigue which can improve overall quality of sleep
- Limits inflammation: speeds up your recovery process, especially after an intense workout
- Increased libido
- Improved glycemic control: for those with diabetes, helps to maintain the optimal level of glucose
“It is important to note that the research around ice baths is highly inconclusive,” says Craig Van Dein, M.D., physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at JFK University Medical Center. “Although it is common amongst professional athletes to participate in some form of cold therapy, there is currently no sound research that points toward its general health benefits.”
What are the risks of an ice bath?
There’s no doubt that one potential negative effect of an ice bath will be the discomfort from feeling very cold once fully immersed in the water. However, there are some more serious risks to taking an ice bath that are worth making note of before you do so:
- Hypothermia: your body temperature can begin to drop after one to three minutes submerged in water less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit – increasing the risk of hypothermia
- Drowning: loss of cognitive ability, muscle control and overall the way your body responds to the cold water can impair you and increase your risk of drowning
- Cold shock: sudden CWI in water temperature 60 degrees or below can “shock” your body, causing:
- Hyperventilation or rapid breathing
- Involuntary gasping
- Spikes in blood pressure and heart rate
- Cognitive impairment
- Impairs ability to think clearly
- Increased difficulty making decisions
- Physical incapacitation: loss of muscular control in extremities such as your arms, legs, hands and feet
- Longer periods of exposure or colder temperatures of the water can increase the severity of the impact
- Losing control can make it more difficult to keep your head above water and potentially lead to drowning
- Can cause you to feel weak or exhausted
- Concerns for those with pre-existing heart conditions
- Cardiovascular risks: decreases in core body temperature can slow the blood flow in your body and constrict your blood vessels
- Can put you at increased risk for stroke or cardiac arrest
- Talk to your health care provider if you have any cardiovascular diseases or high blood pressure before you consider taking an ice bath
“It is important to understand your own medical history and conditions before taking an ice bath to determine how it could impact your preexisting conditions. If you are unsure whether or not you can safely take an ice bath, talk to your doctor to weigh the potential benefits and risks for you,” says Jorge Corzo, M.D., physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Bayshore Medical Center and Riverview Medical Center.
Never take an ice bath alone, especially for your first time. You don’t know how your body will react to the cold temperature of the water, and as we have seen from the risks listed above, it puts you at risk to severely impair your physical and cognitive abilities.
Make sure you take an ice bath with a well-informed mindset and an open mind, and follow the suggestions your doctor has given you. Make sure you know everything there is to know before taking that plunge. Ice baths can be an exciting experience, but your safety regarding your health comes first.
Next Steps & Resources:
- Our sources: Jorge Corzo, M.D., and Craig Van Dein, M.D.
- To make an appointment with a rehabilitation specialist near you, call 800-822-8905 or visit our website.
The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.