- On Good Things Utah this morning – Ice baths are one of those wellness trends that seem so genuinely uncomfortable that you probably want to know in advance if it’s effective or not before taking the plunge. The toe-numbing practice is a favorite among athletes to relieve muscle soreness and has been praised for its various health benefits by celebrities like Lady Gaga and Harry Styles on social media.
- R&B singer Usher is such a fan of freezing soaks that he keeps a portable ice bath backstage at his Las Vegas residency, which he uses to rejuvenate his body in between shows. Actor Mark Wahlberg starts every single day with an ice-cold soak to help reduce inflammation and improve his sleep — even when he’s traveling and has to improvise using hotel ice machines, he told TODAY in an interview. These all seem like great endorsements, but what does the science say? Is putting yourself through all the shivering and discomfort worth it? We talked to Dr. Dominic King, a sports medicine physician in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, to find out what ice baths actually do to the body, the health benefits and risks, and how to try them safely.
- What do ice baths do to the body?
- As the name suggests, ice baths involve submerging the body in a bath of icy cold water for a short period of time. Ice baths — or “cold water immersions” — are not new, but they have come in and out of popularity in recent years, King told TODAY.com. What happens to the body during an ice bath is relatively straightforward, said King. “You get constriction of your blood vessels in the blood flow to the area wherever you have ice or cold applied,” King said. “So if it’s your entire body, you’re going to get constriction of those blood vessels throughout your body, focusing on your legs and your arms away from your core where most of your heat is held.” When blood vessels are constricted, blood doesn’t flow as quickly to those areas. Generally speaking, less blood flow means reduced inflammation — at least temporarily.
- The benefits of ice baths
- Ice baths are typically used by athletes after workouts to ease sore muscles and improve recovery, said King. But the evidence has been debated. Historically, the science behind the effects of ice baths has been “pretty mixed,” said King, and some studies have even suggested that ice baths are a placebo. However, a recent systematic review — the highest level of research, King noted — published in the journal Sports Medicine in February 2022 suggested otherwise. “It showed that cold water immersion was an effective recovery tool after high intensity exercise, specifically HIIT exercises,” said King. In the study, people who used ice baths after high intensity exercise reported feeling better, increased muscular power and improved soreness, he added. Researchers also observed positive outcomes for creatine kinase, an enzyme that is released into the bloodstream when muscle cells are damaged after strenuous exercise. So there is research showing that ice baths can provide some benefit for people who do high-intensity exercise, King said, but there are mental and functional reasons why people do cold water immersion as well, he added.
- Ice baths can reduce pain and inflammation. “It can numb pain receptors and bring down inflammation, so you can almost think of it as like a drug-free anesthetic,” King said. Patients who have inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, may find that cold water immersion helps reduce swelling or discomfort from flare-ups or after workouts, he added. They lower body temperature. Not surprisingly, ice baths can cool your body down very fast. In some cases, this can be lifesaving. “Historically, we’ve used ice baths in medicine to treat things like heat stroke,” said King, adding that it’s common to have tubs filled with ice on the sidelines of marathons. “We’ll get a lot of runners … and their core body temperature is 105, 106, 107 … and you need to bring down their core temperature very quickly,” King said. It’s important to note that while ice baths are used to treat heat stroke, “we don’t rely on an ice bath to just reduce a fever from an illness,” said King. “When you have a fever, the most important thing to do is to figure out where the fever is coming from, it could be an infection or another life-threatening condition,” said King, adding that you should see a healthcare provider. Ice baths may help with focus and meditation.
- Another benefit of ice baths that King has heard from patients is that this helps with focus. “People sometimes do this as almost a post-workout meditation, so it helps them kind of focus on recovery and slow their heart rate,” King said. They may help you relax and sleep better. Cold water immersion may also help you feel more relaxed after a tough workout, King said. “Some people note that it helps them actually sleep better, so after getting really hot, really sweaty, and doing (an ice bath) they just feel rested,” he added. We hope you tune in for this Hot Topic and so much more this morning on GTU!
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