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It’s not uncommon to see athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and weekend warriors jumping into an ice bath after physical activity.

Also called cold water immersion (CWI) or cryotherapy, the practice of taking a 10 to 15 minute dip in very cold water (50-59°F) after an intense exercise session or competition is believed to help reduce muscle pain and soreness.

The practice of using ice baths to relieve sore muscles goes back decades. But a 2017 study may throw a wrench in that belief.

The recent study suggests that the previous ideas about ice bath benefits for athletes is flawed, and that there’s no benefit to sore muscles.

While the study does argue that an active recovery — such as 10 minutes of low-intensity exercise on a stationary bike — is just as good for recovery as CWI, experts in the field still believe in using ice baths.

Dr. A. Brion Gardner, an orthopedic surgeon with The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, says there are still benefits to ice baths.

“The study does not prove 100 percent that there are no benefits to ice baths,” he says. “It suggests that the previously believed benefits of faster recovery, reduction of muscle and tissue damage, and improved function aren’t necessarily true.”

And Dr. Thanu Jey, the clinic director at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic, agrees.

“There will always be research that will support both sides of this debate,” he says. “Although much of the research is inconclusive, I side with current best management of professional athletes who regularly use ice baths.”

Study limitations

One important thing to note with this study is the sample size and age.

The study consisted of 9 young men between the ages of 19 and 24 who were doing resistance training two to three days a week. More research and larger studies are necessary to debunk the benefits of ice baths.

If you’re considering trying an ice bath, you might be wondering what the potential benefits are, and if it’s worth subjecting your body to the extreme cold.

The good news is there are some potential benefits of using an ice bath, especially for people who work out or are competitive athletes.

1. Eases sore and aching muscles

According to Gardner, the greatest benefit of ice baths, most likely, is that they simply make the body feel good.

“After an intense workout, the cold immersion can be a relief to sore, burning muscles,” he explains.

2. Helps your central nervous system

Gardner says an ice bath can also help your central nervous system by aiding in sleep, and consequently, making you feel better from having less fatigue.

Plus, he says it can help improve reaction time and explosiveness in future workouts.

3. Limits the inflammatory response

The theory, says Jey, is that decreasing the local temperature after exercise helps limit inflammatory response, decreasing the amount of inflammation and helping you recover faster.

4. Decreases the effect of heat and humidity

Taking an ice bath may decrease the effect of heat and humidity.

“An ice bath prior to a long race in conditions where there is an increase in temperature or humidity can lower core body temperature a few degrees which can lead to improved performance,” explains Gardner.

5. Trains your vagus nerve

One of the main benefits of an ice bath says certified strength and conditioning specialist Aurimas Juodka, CSCS, CPT, is being able to train your vagus nerve.

“The vagus nerve is linked with the parasympathetic nervous system, and training it can help you face stressful situations more adequately,” he explains.

The most noticeable side effect of an ice bath is feeling very cold when you immerse your body in the cold water. But beyond this superficial side effect, there are some other risks to consider.

“The primary risk of an ice bath applies to people who have a preexisting cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure,” explains Gardner.

“The decrease in core temperature and the immersion in ice constricts blood vessels and slows the flow of blood in the body,” he says. This can be dangerous if you have decreased blood flow, which Gardner says places you at risk for cardiac arrest or stroke.

Another risk that may happen is hypothermia, especially if you’re submerged in the ice bath for too long.

People with type 1 and type 2 diabetes also need to be careful with ice baths since they’re both associated with reduced ability to maintain core temperature during extreme temperature changes.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, there are a few things you should know before submerging your body in ice.

Temperature of ice bath

The temperature of an ice bath, says Gardner, needs to be approximately 10–15° Celsius or 50–59° Fahrenheit.

Time in ice bath

Spending too much time in an ice bath can have adverse consequences. That’s why you should limit your time to no longer than 10 to 15 minutes.

Body exposure

Gardner says it’s generally recommended to immerse your entire body in the ice bath to gain the best effect of blood vessel constriction.

However, to start out, you may want to first expose your feet and lower legs. As you get comfortable, you can move toward your chest.

At-home use

If you decide to take an ice bath at home, Gardner says to use a thermometer to help you achieve the ideal temperature when balancing the ice to water mixture.

If the temperature is too high (above 15°C or 59°F), add warmer water. And if it’s too low, gradually add ice until you reach the desired temperature.

Timing of bath

“The sooner you get in an ice bath after a workout or competition, the better the effects should be,” says Gardner.

If you wait an hour after the workout, he says some of the healing and inflammatory processes have already begun or have already finished.

Hunter Reaction/Lewis Reaction

Another way to gain the benefits of ice on sore muscles is to use the Hunters Reaction/Lewis Reaction method by following the 10-10-10 format.

“I recommend icing for 10 minutes (not directly on bare skin), followed by removing the ice for 10 minutes, and then finally following with another 10 minutes of icing — this allows for 20 minutes of an effective physiological icing procedure,” explains Jey.

Cryotherapy

Some people opt for full-body cryotherapy chambers, which is basically cold therapy in an office setting. These sessions are not cheap and can run anywhere from $45 to $100 per session.

Short-term use

When it comes to how often you should take an ice bath, the research is limited. However, it’s important to note that some experts say acute bouts of CWI to facilitate a quicker recovery is ok, but chronic use of CWI should be avoided.

The research questioning the benefits of ice baths is limited. Many experts still see value in using CWI post-workout with avid exercisers and athletes.

If you choose to use ice baths as a form of recovery after an athletic event or intense training session, make sure to follow the recommended guidelines, especially time and temperature.