This post was written by Rylie White, athletic certified trainer, Parkview Sports Medicine.
Social media channels are peppered with images of men and women lowering their bodies into tubs or lakes of icy water. The practice comes with a lengthy list of claims, from faster muscle recovery to improved cognitive clarity. So, is it worth taking the plunge?
Cold water immersion is an ancient practice, with ties to many different cultures. Devotees believe it can remove toxins, release endorphins, promote healthy blood flow, and even cure different ailments. More recently, cold water immersion has been a popular tool to aid in recovery after intense sessions of physical activity.
Is it effective?
Studies have shown that the temperature of water can promote vasoconstriction, pain relief, a reduction in inflammatory pathways, and can even provide an individual with a beneficial placebo effect.
Vasoconstriction is the narrowing of blood vessels, in this case, caused by the cold temperatures, that reduces the amount of blood flow to the tissue. When blood flow is restricted to damaged tissue, likely from strenuous exercise, the amount of swelling and inflammatory activity is greatly reduced.
The cold temperature of the water also reduces the speed at which nerve conduction and nerve excitability takes place. This means that the pain receptors of the damaged tissue have a reduction in communication with the sympathetic nervous system, which leads to a decreased perception of pain.
Is it worth it?
While cold water immersion can be a very effective tool to promote recovery and to reduce the soreness and pain that comes from strenuous exercise, it’s important to understand the practical applications to avoid damage or injury.
Some of the negative effects of cold exposure can be hypothermia (low body temperature), frost nip or even frostbite. Most experts recommend a water temperature of 52° Fahrenheit for a duration of 1-15 minutes while monitoring for any symptoms of cold-related illness.
As with any workout regimen or recovery method, we recommend that individuals speak with their doctor before they begin any new practice.