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Ice Bath Therapy
Can cryotherapy really relieve pain and heal muscles faster?

Ice Bucket

Long distance running can really stress your muscles. Like any intense exercise, it causes micro trauma or tiny tears in the muscle fibers. Those tears can take 2 or 3 days before they mend. The longer you have to wait for your body to heal, the longer it is before you can get another workout in. That's why athletes are always looking for ways to speed up the recovery process.

Quicker recovery + more workouts = more muscles faster.

One of the tricks long distance runners use for quicker recovery is an ice bath. It was believed you could speed healing by dropping your legs into freezing cold water.

Ice baths (or cryotherapy as it's technically called) were believed to help in three ways. The ice was thought to reduce inflammation, swelling and tissue breakdown. The theory was that as the blood vessels constricted from the cold, they would push waste products like lactic acid out. When you get out and start warming your legs up again, the body rushes warm blood back into the affected areas, which then were supposed to heal faster. REMEMBER: That was the theory. The reality is, it didn't work.

UPDATE: Ice therapy may not be as effective as once believed. Click here to learn more about P.R.I.C.E. after an injury.

UPDATE: Researchers find Ice therapy doesn't work.

In a study published in the February 1, 2017 issue of the Journal of Physiology, researchers “...compared the effects of cold water immersion versus active recovery on inflammatory cells, pro-inflammatory cytokines, neurotrophins and heat shock proteins (HSPs) in skeletal muscle after intense resistance exercise.” (They tested the differences between using active recovery and cold water therapy.)

After muscle biopsies were analyzed, they found that, “...cold water immersion is no more effective than active recovery for reducing inflammation or cellular stress in muscle after a bout of resistance exercise.” In other words, there's no benefit from submerging parts of your body in cold or ice water over simple active recovery. Ditch the ice bath.

Here's how ice baths were supposed to be taken.

  1. You started by filling a tub with cool water until it would reach just slightly below your waist.
  2. Then you put on a sweatshirt or warm jacket, hat and neoprene booties. Only your legs were to be chilled so you wanted to keep the rest of your body warm.
  3. May people liked to have some music playing or a good book to take their mind off the cold.
  4. Once you're ready, you would climb into the tub and pour 1 or 2 bags of ice in the water with you. It got cold quick!

The water temperature range people wanted was between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit (5 and 10 degrees Celsius). If it was much hotter than 60 degrees Fahrenheit it wasn't thought it could reduce the muscle inflammation. You wouldn't want to sit in a tub of solid ice either, that would be too cold and very uncomfortable.

The exact length time you were supposed to chill was never established. Runners websites and magazines usually said 15-20 minutes, but in tests the subjects only stayed for 5-15 minutes. Since no time limit has been shown to have beneficial effects, the time really doesn't matter.

Taking an ice bath was believed to give the most benefit when it was done as soon as the event is over. That was a problem if you're in a race or far away from your home when you finish. What many people did was look for a cold body of water, a river or lake at the end of the race and they used that in place of an ice bath. Of course that won't work very well in the warm waters of my home Key West, but in northern states it was a reasonable alternative.

Ice River

Ice therapy also doesn't help Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). DOMS results from the way your muscles repair themselves. Your body rushes immune cells in to repair torn muscle tissue. Those immune cells make pain receptors in your body more sensitive and mediate the inflammatory response. In two separate studies an ice bath did nothing to lessen the pain. In fact, in an experiment reported in the 2007 British Journal of Sports Medicine, pain levels were higher for subjects who went through cryotherapy than for those who didn't.

If you're a runner, skip the ice bath therapy. Don't waste your time on something that has been clinically shown to have no real benefit over the much simpler active recovery.

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5/24/2009
Updated 4/19/2014
Updated 7/20/2018