Sitting in a barrel or bathtub filled with ice-cold water may sound a bit crazy. Still, people worldwide do it regularly for its potential health benefits.
This practice, known as cold-water immersion, is becoming an increasingly popular form of cold water therapy. Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete, also known as “The Iceman,” earned his nickname by breaking world records related to cold exposure, as well as by creating a program involving cold-water immersion, breath work, and commitment (willpower) for possible wellness perks. But Hof wasn’t the first.
Historically, various cultures have used cold water as a cryotherapeutic practice (an umbrella term for therapies involving cold temperatures) for thousands of years, according to a review published in February 2022 in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.
Today, physical therapists, chiropractors, personal trainers, and other healthcare professionals use cold-water immersion and other forms of cold water therapy (such as contrast water therapy, which alternates exposure to hot and cold water) as a way to relieve pain, potentially speed up muscle recovery, and more.
5 Potential Health Benefits of Cryotherapy
How Cold Water Therapy Works
Plunging your body into cold water causes blood vessels to constrict (known as vasoconstriction). When blood vessels contract, they push blood toward your organs, says Jonathan Leary, a doctor of chiropractic medicine and the CEO and founder of Remedy Place, a wellness facility in New York City and California that offers ice bath classes. Directing blood toward the organs supplies the blood with more oxygen and nutrients.
Then, once you get out of the cold water, your blood vessels open up (known as vasodilation) Dr. Leary says. This allows oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to return to your tissues to help remove waste products, such as lactic acid buildup. If left to sit in the muscles, that waste may delay healing, according to Rochester Regional Health.
Here are some of the potential health benefits of cold water therapy:
1. May Enhance Recovery From Exercise
Many professional and everyday athletes, working with licensed trainers or healthcare professionals, use cold water therapy to aid recovery from an intense workout.
There has been some evidence that cold-water immersion reduces delayed onset muscle soreness after exercise, compared with passive interventions involving rest (or no intervention at all), according to both a past review and a recent meta-analysis.
Separately, to evaluate different types of cold therapy, researchers in a small past study of 10 men compared cold-water immersion (10 minutes at 50 degrees F) with whole-body cryotherapy (three minutes at negative 166 degrees F) for lowering muscle soreness after exercise. They found that cold-water immersion may be more effective than whole-body cryotherapy (a therapeutic technique that involves sitting or standing in a chamber where the air is up to negative 200 degrees F), but larger studies are needed to better understand the efficacies of different types of cold therapy on muscle recovery.
Another caveat: Cold-water immersion may limit long-term gains in muscle and strength, past research suggests. “So, you wouldn’t want to use it after every single workout,” says Scott J. Biehl, DO, an orthopedics and sports medicine physician at Rochester Regional Health in New York. He recommends saving it for after a particularly intense training session, game, or competition.
2. May Reduce Pain
Cold water therapy may help with short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) pain in a couple of ways.
First, by lowering inflammation. “Inflammation in the body can cause pain, so if you can reduce inflammation, you may be able to reduce overall pain,” says John Gallucci Jr., DPT, a medical coordinator for Major League Soccer based in Bridgewater, New Jersey.
Contrast water therapy — alternating between hot and cold water — may be especially helpful. In fact, contrast water therapy has been reported to be used for treating pain from rheumatoid arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, foot and ankle sprains, and diabetes, according to research published in 2018 in the Journal of Athletic Training.
It’s thought that switching back and forth from hot and cold water creates a pumping effect as the blood vessels constrict and expand. This boosts blood flow to deliver more oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, helping lower inflammation, per the Journal of Athletic Training.
Another way cold water therapy may help with pain is through its effects on the nerves. Past research suggests that both water immersion and cold temperatures block nerve cells that signal pain in the body.
3. May Improve Circulation
Many of cold water therapy’s perks can be traced back to its effects on circulation.
In the aforementioned study in the Journal of Athletic Training, researchers had 10 healthy adults undergo a 30-minute contrast water session with one lower leg submerged and the other above water. They found that contrast water therapy significantly improved circulation and increased oxygen levels in the submerged leg muscles, compared with the leg that wasn’t submerged.
The circulatory system (also known as the cardiovascular system) pumps blood to the lungs to transfer oxygen via the heart to the rest of the body. The better your heart and blood vessels can perform these functions, the better they’ll be able to rid your body of waste. The end result? Healthier organs, muscles, and tissues, per the Cleveland Clinic.
4. May Boost Your Mood
The bracing effects of cold water may offer a quick mood boost.
Past research reveals that submerging your body in cold water increases dopamine concentrations by 250 percent. Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” hormone because of the key role it plays in regulating mood, per the Cleveland Clinic.
“Dopamine boosts our mental state at the moment, and it also helps with mental acuity and alertness throughout the day,” says Mathew Welch, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
In addition, a small recent study out of Indonesia found that taking a 20-minute cold-water bath (68 to 86 degrees F) four days a week lowered pain and improved overall quality of life in people with gout. The subjects also reported less stress, anxiety, and depression by the end of the four-week study. However, some mood benefits may have been due to improvements in pain and mobility, and not necessarily attributed to cold water therapy directly.
Keep in mind: While some research suggests that cold water therapy may benefit depression and anxiety, it can’t replace conventional care for mood disorders, Dr. Biehl says.
5. May Build Resilience
Regularly challenging yourself to withstand cold temperatures may help you build resilience, or the ability to handle other stressful situations when they arise.
“I think there’s a lot to be said about exposing your body to those types of stimuli in a controlled manner,” Welch says.
Exposure to cold water triggers the release of hormones like adrenaline, epinephrine, and noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine), he says. In fact, cold-water immersion led noradrenaline concentrations to increase by 530 percent, per past research.
In addition, a survey of routine winter ocean bathers found that this practice was associated with lower levels of self-reported stress and higher well-being, compared with those who did not, according to research.
This hormone release is part of your body’s natural stress response. “We go through an alarm phase when we’re hit with a stressor like cold water,” Welch says. “Then we have a resistance phase where our body adapts to the stressor.” Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you’re more resilient to the cold water.
“This is more of a mental benefit than a physical benefit, but for people struggling with anxiety or just feeling like they lack control to start teaching the body and the mind that you can be put in extreme situations and remain calm, cold water therapy can be an amazing thing,” Leary says.
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