Scroll through Instagram and you’ll likely see videos of people climbing into tubs filled with ice and frigid water, taking cold showers, or plunging into freezing alpine lakes. While you might be tempted to write off these feats as a social media trend, submerging your body in bone-chilling water is actually an age-old practice known as cold water therapy, a type of cryotherapy.
Cold water therapy is the use of water to promote health or manage disease, according to research. While it has a long history, it’s primarily used to speed healing after an injury, ease joint and muscle pain, and quicken recovery from exercise, among other possible health benefits.
Research on the topic has generally focused on pain, muscular injury prevention and recovery, and mood, and cold water therapy is considered a complementary therapy given that it’s an evolving field. Read on to learn about potential health benefits and the possible risks of cold water approaches for health and medical uses, and to evaluate if this therapy is worth discussing with your doctor.
Possible Benefits of Cold Water Therapy
Taking a chilly dip may offer benefits.
1. May Aid Muscle Recovery
Stepping into an ice bath may help speed up recovery after exercise. In fact, the majority of research on the potential health benefits of cold water therapy involve muscle recovery.
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 review and a meta-analysis.
Separately, one study evaluated the effectiveness of different types of cold therapy, either with chilled water or cold air. In this study, 10 men hopped into water at 50 degrees F for 10 minutes after performing a set of leg exercises. On another day, after the same leg exercises, they received whole-body cryotherapy, a therapy that involves sitting or standing in a chamber in which the air is up to minus 200 degrees F (the air was minus 166 degrees F in this study) for about three minutes.
Researchers found that cold water immersion was more effective than whole-body cryotherapy in lowering muscle soreness and perceptions of recovery 24 to 48 hours after exercise. But because this study and others like it have small participant groups, more robust research is needed to fully understand the relationship between cold water immersion versus whole-body cryotherapy for post-workout healing.
2. May Help Relieve Pain
Cold water therapy is often used in physical therapy settings to lower inflammation and pain in people with long-lasting (chronic) and short-term (acute) pain, Dr. Gallucci says.
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 the study in the Journal of Athletic Training.
Switching between the two extremes causes blood vessels to repeatedly constrict and open, leading to a pumping effect that increases blood flow and delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the tissues. It’s thought that this may reduce swelling, improve muscle function, and promote healing, per that study.
3. May Boost Your Mood
A cold water plunge may temporarily put you in a better mood.
For example, research shows that cold water immersion led to a 250 percent increase in dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and hormone that plays a key role in mood. In fact, it’s known as the feel-good hormone, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Plus, a small study found that taking a 20-minute ice bath four days a week improved quality of life in people with gout. Participants also reported less stress, anxiety, and depression.
Cold Water Therapy Risks
Exposing the body to drastic temperature changes — as when hopping into an ice bath or cold lake — is stressful for the body. It’s especially tough on the circulatory system, which encompasses the heart, blood vessels, and lymph system, per the National Cancer Institute. For this reason, people with heart, blood pressure, and other circulatory issues shouldn’t try cold water therapy without checking with their doctor first, Gallucci says.
Submerging your body in cold water also increases your risk of hypothermia, a potentially life-threatening condition that develops when your body temperature drops too low, according to the Mayo Clinic. Hypothermia can occur much more quickly in the water because water pulls heat away from the body 25 times faster than air, warns the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). What’s more, hypothermia can happen anytime the water temperature dips below 70 degrees F, per the NIOSH. Cold water immersion therapies generally use water temperatures between 50 and 59 degrees F, so take extra caution and foster awareness of hypothermia symptoms. It’s best to try cold water therapy with a healthcare provider’s guidance to avoid hypothermia and other risks given your health status.
And while the temperatures typically used in cold water therapies may not be cold enough to cause frostbite, you may get skin redness and irritation, Biehl says.
Access to Cold Water Therapy
Cold water immersion therapy is often offered at athletic facilities and physical therapy centers. For privacy reasons, you may not be able to do full-body immersion, unless wearing swimwear is an option, but many physical therapists will submerge injured joints into cold water to decrease inflammation, Gallucci says.
You can also do most forms of cold water therapy on your own at home, after you’ve spoken with your doctor or a healthcare provider to determine if cold water therapy is safe for you. Taking a cold shower may be the easiest method for beginners who aren't used to cold water exposure, but you can do ice baths if you have a bathtub or basin.
If you prefer, you can perform cold water immersion outdoors if you have access to natural bodies of water. Just check the water temperature before you wade in. Studies of cold water therapy tend to use temperatures between 50 and 59 degrees F, but there are no universal guidelines, so talk to your doctor about what’s best for you.
Some specialty recovery studios also offer cold water therapy. For example, Remedy Place has an ice bath class that begins with breathing exercises to help participants prepare for the frigid temperatures.
If you’re interested in learning the Wim Hof Method, start with the free mini class and then practice with the mobile app. To go deeper, take an online video course or attend an in-person retreat.
It’s always best to work with a physical therapist, chiropractor, or other healthcare professional to create a cold water therapy routine that fits your wellness needs, especially if you’re interested in using cold water therapy to improve sports performance or help with chronic pain or injury recovery.
Tips for Getting Started With Cold Water Therapy
If you’re new to cold water therapy, hopping into a frigid lake or a tub filled with ice may be too much of a shock. Take time to acclimate yourself before you take the cold plunge.
“We recommend our athletes and patients start with a cold shower or an outdoor pool that’s around 65 degrees F,” Gallucci says. You can use repeated showers over time (days or even weeks) to build up your tolerance.
Once you’re ready to submerge, simply fill your tub with the coldest water you can get from your tap. This will most likely fill your tub within the range of 50 to 60 degrees F, Biehl says. Double-check by dipping a thermometer in the water. If your water isn’t cold enough to reach 60 degrees, that’s okay; you can add ice after your tolerance to cold exposure has increased.
If you prefer to plunge into a natural body of water, look online to find information about options in your area. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides water quality information by state, so you can avoid bodies of water that pose health and safety risks. In addition, the National Weather Service offers daily water temperature data. Look for water between 50 to 60 degrees F and bring a buddy for support. Don’t try it alone.
Once you’re ready for a dip, step carefully into the tub, barrel, or natural body of water and slowly lower yourself until you’re submerged from the neck down. You can also target a specific region of the body. For example, only sit in water high enough to cover the legs to boost recovery following an intense lower-body strength routine or cycling session, Biehl suggests.
“Try to sit for two or five minutes and work your way up to 10 minutes,” he says.
Leary recommends getting out once you start to shake or shiver. “That’s your body telling you that you’ve reached your max time for the day,” he says.
What to Expect Before, During, and After Cold Water Therapy
Your experience with cold water therapy will vary depending on the type you choose and your intended wellness goals.
Expect to submerge your body (or parts of your body) in water at least 59 degrees F. You can sit in a bathtub filled with cold water and ice, wade into a chilly lake, take a cool shower, or alternate cold water immersion with hot water immersion.
If you’re doing cold water therapy at home, you may choose to go without clothes. In other places, you can wear a swimsuit or shorts and a light top or sports bra.
Entering cold water may take your breath away at first, “and you can feel your heart race,” Biehl says. It may shock you into a heightened state of awareness, giving you an instant pick-me-up. As you sit there longer, your body adapts, and your heart and breathing rates slow, Biehl says. You may even feel relaxed.
In the beginning, you might spend only a few minutes in the cold water. You’ll have to gauge how your body responds and tailor your practice accordingly. “There’s a very fine line between what each person can tolerate,” Welch says. Just because your friend can sit for five minutes doesn’t mean you can. Get out once you start to shake or shiver, Leary says.
Once you get out of the water, let your body warm up naturally. “You will shiver,” Leary says. And it may take a while for your body to return to its normal temperature, “but allowing your body to get there on its own intensifies the effects of [cold water therapy],” he notes.
You may notice that you have greater mobility or less pain once you warm up, which is the circulation-boosting power of cold water therapy at work. In Leary's opinion, there’s no better feeling than stepping out of a cold water therapy tub.
Resources We Love on Cold Water Therapy
Wim Hof Method
Learn more about the Wim Hof Method by visiting the official website. Here, you’ll find a blog, a newsletter, online courses, an app, and books.
What Doesn’t Kill Us
Written by investigative journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney, What Doesn’t Kill Us explores how extreme environments such as freezing water and high altitude may make people stronger. While the book covers many topics, it includes cold water therapy and the Wim Hof Method.
National Geographic’s Limitless With Chris Hemsworth
In National Geographic’s show Limitless With Chris Hemswoth, the actor interviews scientific experts and takes on a variety of physical and mental challenges in search of answers on what may help humans live healthier and longer. In "Shock," the second episode in the series, Hemsworth works with cold exposure as he goes for a freezing swim in open water. (His exposure was much more extreme, and under medical guidance, so don’t try this at home.) It’s chock-full of visuals on the effects of cold and hot temperatures on the body, and may be useful if you’re interested in learning more.
Products, Blogs, and Guided Videos
Note: Everyday Health does not endorse these products. There are no universal guidelines for how cold the water should be or how long to stay in cold water. After you’ve talked with your doctor or worked with a licensed therapist, if you’re interested in practicing at home, some of these links may be helpful.
While you can take ice baths in your bathtub, companies like Polar Monkeys are designing tanks to use indoors or outdoors. This Hallandale Beach, Florida–based company offers steel tanks, inflatable tanks, and cedar wood tubs with chillers that drop the water below 40 degrees F (water temperatures of 50 to 59 degrees F are recommended by most experts).
The Cold Plunge
Based in Lincoln, California, The Cold Plunge creates tubs built specifically for cold water immersion therapy. You can set the water temp (down to 39 degrees F), and the indoor or outdoor tubs are generally safe for most healthy people. If you want to know more before you plunge, check out the company's blog, watch guided plunge videos, and review the potential benefits.
For some people, barrels offer a more accessible way to do cold water therapy. Ice Barrel offers lightweight barrels (55 pounds when empty) that feature an easy-to-use drainage system and enable you to sit in an upright position. Need more info? Explore its blog.
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