What Are the Benefits and Risks of Ice Baths?

Date: Nov 20, 2023

While it’s not unusual to see an athlete sit in a bathtub full of ice after a game, everyday people also take ice baths. You may wonder, “Why would someone want to take that kind of chilly plunge?” Although it might seem like another fad, the health benefits of ice baths to relieve pain and speed recovery have been known for centuries.

What Is an Ice Bath?

An ice bath “involves exposing your body to temperatures you consider uncomfortably cold,” says Emory Sports Medicine Center physical therapist Anna Cottle, PT, DPT, ACT. Ice baths, also called cold plunges, are a form of cold-water therapy. When you take an ice bath, you submerge your body—up to your neck—into cold water for a specific amount of time. 

Experts have traced cold-water therapy back to ancient Egypt. A 1930 document called the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus detailed how ancient Egyptians used cold to help improve health and reduce inflammation. Ancient Greeks and Romans also used cold water therapy for medicinal purposes, as well as for relaxation. Today, we use ice baths for similar reasons.

Because everyone experiences temperatures differently, what is extremely cold for one person may be warmer for someone else. “It’s very person-dependent,” Cottle says. “You don’t have to go to 32 degrees to get the benefits, especially if you’re not cold-adapted.”

The best temperature for an ice bath is unknown. However, people who have more experience with ice baths may go lower. For example, Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof, known as “The Iceman,” plunges between 32 and 43 degrees Fahrenheit. Beginners should start at a warmer temperature. You can decrease the temperature as you acclimate to the cold.

What Are the Benefits of Ice Baths?

Although willingly submerging yourself in a tub full of ice might not sound like fun, taking the plunge has extraordinary health benefits. Cold therapy in general is a common treatment for orthopedic and sports injuries.

Cottle, who received her doctorate in physical therapy, cares for many patients with hip, knee, or shoulder pain, especially after surgery. Her athlete patients often do cold plunges after an injury or endurance workouts to aid general recovery. But in general, she recommends topical ice applications for 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off to reduce pain and swelling. An added benefit of cold therapy, Cottle says, is that it can reduce the use of pain medications during recovery.

Cold therapy can accelerate muscle recovery after a tough workout. It can also help relieve pain and soreness and reduce inflammation by causing the blood vessels to constrict and then dilate.

There are also mental benefits to ice baths. According to research, cold plunging increases the concentration of dopamine—the “feel good” chemical—in the brain by 250%. Ice baths also reduce the amount of the stress hormone cortisol. Over time, ice baths can help you become more resilient against stress.

What Are the Risks of Ice Baths?

Although ice baths have several benefits, they also carry risks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that hypothermia (a dangerous drop in body temperature) can occur at water temperatures below 70 degrees. You can develop immersion hypothermia when submerging in water colder than 59 degrees. Water moves heat away from the body 25 times faster than air, so hypothermia sets in more quickly underwater.

People with certain health conditions should exercise caution before trying an ice bath. For example, diabetes can affect your ability to sense tissue damage, which can occur in extremely cold water or if you stay submerged too long. You should also avoid immersion if you have an open wound or incision, Cottle says. Instead, you can put ice on the wound, making sure to have a barrier to prevent the risk of getting an infection.

“There can be risk when someone tries an ice bath for the first time, especially if they haven’t checked with their doctor to see if they have any underlying conditions,” Cottle says. “It’s also risky if they don’t ease themselves into it.” 

How To Take an Ice Bath at Home

Before you attempt cold water therapy at home, talk to your doctor. If you get the OK, start at a warmer temperature and lower the temperature as you get adapted to the cold. Cottle recommends you can start with cold showers, which are generally safe. You can also fill a tub with cold water. Problems such as hyperventilation (rapid breathing) may arise if you stay in too long when you haven’t adapted to the cold. You do not have to put your whole body in at first—you can start with your arms and legs and work your way to more of your body. 

You’ll also want to make sure you don’t re-warm too quickly. Going immediately into a hot temperature can be a shock to your system. Instead, warm up naturally or by drying off. Light exercises such as stretching, walking, and doing squats or pushups after an ice bath can also help with re-warming.

For safety reasons, it helps to have a buddy nearby, especially if you are new to cold water therapy. You may need assistance if something happens, such as uncontrollable shivering. You also want to focus on your breath while in the bath. It can help you control your response to the cold. A friend can help you with your breathing and coach you through the immersion. 

Ready To Take the Plunge?

Adding an ice bath may benefit your wellness routine, so understand the risks before you turn down the tap. If you are trying cold therapy for the first time, it’s best to have supervision, Cottle says. This trend may not suit everyone, so talk to your doctor or trainer first. You can also work with a physical therapist to figure out the right approach for you.

If chronic pain and suffering in your joints are keeping you down, turn to the experts at Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center. With flexible scheduling options, we’re here to help you find relief quickly, so you can get back to focusing on the moments that matter most to you.

Schedule your appointment today.

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