An ice bath, or cold water immersion (CWI), is a type of cold water therapy that involves immersing your body in ice water for about 5-15 minutes. It’s a type of cryotherapy, which is exposing your body to very cold temperatures for a short period of time.
People have used ice baths for centuries because of their possible therapeutic health benefits. Ice baths may help reduce muscle soreness, reduce pain, and improve mood. but current research is limited. Here’s what to know before you take the icy plunge.
When you take an ice bath, the cold water reduces your body and skin temperature. This change in temperature narrows your skin’s blood vessels (vasoconstriction) and moves blood to your core as your body tries to stay warm. When you get out of an ice bath, your blood vessels expand (vasodilation) and pump the oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood back to your body’s tissues, including your muscles. This process may help reduce inflammation that can cause pain and muscle soreness—for example, delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise.
Immersing yourself in water also puts pressure on your body, a process called hydrostatic pressure. Hydrostatic pressure moves blood flow to your heart, brain, and lungs—providing even more oxygen and nutrients to these major organs.
An ice bath is one type of cold water therapy, which is a subtype of cryotherapy (cold therapy).
Ice baths and cold water plunges are both forms of cold-water immersion. This technique typically involves submerging your body from the neck down in water that’s 50-59 degrees for 5-15 minutes.
People often use cold-water immersion to help reduce muscular pain and improve mood.
Cold showers involve standing under the coldest water setting for 5-15 minutes (aiming for 50-59 degree water temperature). Taking a cold shower is technically another form of cold-water immersion.
If you’re new to cold water therapy, a 30-second cold shower can be a good starting point. Cold showers are often used to increase alertness and reduce inflammation.
Contrast Water Therapy (Contrast Baths)
Contrast water therapy involves alternating between cold-water and hot-water immersion. Studies on contrast water therapy have varying protocols. For example, people might start by soaking in hot water for 10 minutes. Then, for 30 minutes, they alternate between soaking in cold water for one minute and hot water for four minutes. Other studies recommend alternating between hot and cold water every minute for 15 minutes.
Contrast water therapy is usually used for sports or other injuries like muscle strain. It often involves immersing the injured area.
Wim Hof Method
The Wim Hof Method (WMH) was created by a Dutch athlete named Wim Hof. It includes three elements:
- Breathing exercises: A specific breathing pattern of hyperventilation followed by breath holds
- Cold exposure: Includes cold showers, ice baths, and cold-water immersion
- Meditation: Mind-body techniques like visualization to increase self-awareness and willpower
Possible benefits include a decreased stress response and improved cardiovascular function, but there isn’t much evidence as to whether or not WMH is effective.
Cold water therapy may offer several health benefits by reducing your body temperature and increasing circulation.
1. Relieves Pain
Ice application is known to narrow blood vessels, which helps reduce swelling, pain, and inflammation after an injury. Research also shows that when cold water hits cold receptors on your skin, it sends electrical impulses to the brain that have a pain-reducing effect.
Like ice application, ice baths also narrow blood vessels. As a result, they likely have a similar effect on pain. When you get out of an ice bath, the increased blood circulation to your tissues and muscles may help reduce pain and inflammation.
2. Reduces Muscle Soreness
A review of 32 randomized controlled trials found that cold-water immersion one hour after exercise helped reduce muscle pain and improve muscle recovery for up to 24 hours. However, heat therapy had similar results.
Another review found that cold water therapy may help reduce muscle soreness after working out. However, the studies included different cold water therapy methods, temperatures, and times. Some conflicting research also shows that cold-water immersion after exercise can reduce muscle mass and strength.
3. Boosts Mood and Alertness
Limited research shows that cold-water immersion may improve your mood. One 2022 study found that people who took a 20-minute soak in 55-degree seawater had significantly improved self-esteem and decreased tension and anger. People who soaked for 18 minutes had similar results.
Another study found that five minutes of cold water immersion in 68-degree water helped improve alertness, decrease nervousness, and reduce stress. However, both studies were small and included less than 50 healthy adults.
Immersing your body in an ice bath does come with some risks. How your body reacts to an ice bath depends on factors like your health, time spent in the water, and temperature. Potential side effects of taking an ice bath include:
- Cold panniculitis (cold-induced rash): An itchy and painful skin rash can develop if extreme cold injures the skin’s fatty tissue layer. Cold panniculitis can look like scaly patches, hard bumps, or deep lumps.
- Cold shock response: Sudden immersion in water under 60 degrees can shock your body and lead to symptoms like rapidly increased breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. This can increase your risk of drowning if you’re in deep water. The effect can also strain the heart.
- Low body temperature (hypothermia): Ice baths can make you too cold and cause your body temperature to drop dangerously low. This can eventually lead to organ failure.
- Ice burn: Direct contact with ice can burn your skin, causing painful blisters and discolored red, white, or gray skin. You can also develop frostbite—skin damage and tissue death caused by freezing skin and underlying tissues.
- Nerve damage: Prolonged cold exposure can reduce blood flow enough to kill tissue and cause permanent neuropathy (nerve damage). Nerve damage can lead to pain, numbness, and loss of muscle strength.
Talk to your healthcare provider before taking an ice bath, especially if you have a health condition. Ice baths can increase your risk of complications if you have conditions such as:
- Cold uterica (hives): This skin condition causes itchy welts when your skin touches something cold, like ice water. Cold uterica can also make you feel faint and cause your throat or lips to swell. Ice baths can cause particularly severe reactions because your entire body is submerged.
- Heart or lung conditions: Cold-water immersion narrows your blood vessels, which can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. This can strain the heart if you have heart disease or high blood pressure. Cold-water immersion can also cause arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats) if you have any heart issues or pulmonary edema—a condition caused by fluid build-up in the lungs.
- Raynaud’s syndrome: With this condition, cold and stress narrow the blood vessels enough to cause little to no blood flow. This lack of blood flow can cause certain body parts, like the fingers and toes, to turn white or blue. In more severe cases, cold water could cause sores or tissue death.
You can take ice baths at home or in a chilly lake. Some fitness centers and physical therapy clinics also offer cold-water immersion therapy.
If you want to take an ice bath at home, the easiest way is to use your bathtub. You can also purchase portable and high-tech water therapy tubs. To take an ice bath:
- Place a large towel right by the tub for easy access.
- Wear light athletic clothing like shorts, sports bras, or shirts. This helps protect sensitive areas of skin. You can also wear a swimsuit, gloves, and socks.
- Fill your tub with cold water and add ice to reach your desired temperature.
- Use a thermometer to test the water temperature (aim between 50-59 degrees)
- Set a timer for 10-15 minutes.
- Slowly lower yourself into the tub, submerging the waist down. If that seems doable, lower until the water reaches your neck.
- Try to relax, taking deep breaths, as you soak. If something feels wrong, you can get out earlier, especially if you’re new to ice baths.
- When your timer goes off, get out of the tub and remove your wet clothes. Dry off thoroughly with your towel and warm up your body.
If you’re new to ice baths, have a friend or partner nearby to make sure everything goes smoothly—especially if you’re outdoors.
If you’re new to ice baths, getting used to the cold water and staying in the tub can be difficult. Expect to feel slightly shocked by the cold and very alert. It will likely be uncomfortable when you first start, but your body will likely adjust if you can relax. That said, don’t expect it to feel like a luxurious spa treatment.
Here are some tips to help you successfully take ice baths:
- Acclimate with cold showers: Start with a cold shower slightly above 50-59 degrees. Repeat this until you’re using the coldest setting.
- Continue acclimating with cold baths: Once you’re comfortable with cold showers, start sitting in a bath filled with the coldest tap water setting. Slowly add ice to get closer to 50-59 degrees.
- Don’t jump into the full 15 minutes: Start with 2-5 minutes and slowly increase your time in an ice bath. Over several weeks, move up to 10 minutes and eventually 15 minutes.
- Only immerse part of your body: Start by taking ice baths that only immerse your legs. Over time, increase the body area submerged—e.g., up to your waist, chest, and below your neck.
There’s no hard science or official recommendation on the optimum time to stay in an ice bath. Studies on muscle recovery suggest that staying in cold water for 5-15 minutes offers results.
People often take an ice bath a few times a week after exercise. You may want to take one daily if you’re an athlete or a very active person. Some research also recommends taking an ice bath within an hour of working out.
Prolonged cold exposure can increase your risk of hypothermia and frostbite. Warning signs you’re getting too cold and need to get out of an ice bath include:
- Excessive shivering
- Skin numbness
- Unusually firm or waxy skin
- White or grayish-yellow skin
- Skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
- A feeling of exhaustion or low energy
- Lethargy (drowsiness)
- Slurred speech
- Memory loss
- Fumbling hands
Ice baths are a type of cold water therapy known as cold-water immersion (CWI). Taking an ice bath lowers your body temperature and triggers more blood flow to your core. After an ice bath, your body temperature rises, and blood flow returns to your tissues.
Ice baths may help improve alertness, reduce pain, and decrease inflammation. As a result, they may offer health benefits like reduced muscle soreness, pain relief, and improved mood. However, the research is very limited. There are also many potential risks. Talk to your healthcare provider if you’re considering trying ice baths, especially if you have a medical condition.
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