The Truth About Ice Baths: Are They Beneficial or Harmful?

Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

Medically reviewed by Dr. James Tan

On a mission to become the healthy version of yourself? You certainly aren’t alone! In this social media era, new health and wellness trends are popping up daily. To reach peak physical fitness and well-being, people around the globe have found all kinds of ways to push their bodies to new limits and gain incredible rewards. One of the biggest of these trends is ice baths. You’ve probably heard about these online and are naturally wondering about the science and truth about ice baths.

This health craze has gained popularity over the years, but it is actually a tradition that has been followed for generations. While it used to be a common habit of grandfathers in Northern Europe, we’re now seeing popular athletes and fitness influencers pushing themselves down in icy cold water online and it’s inspired millions to take the plunge. But, do ice baths really live up to the hype?

Do ice baths really offer the good recovery times and performance-enhancing benefits that so many people claim? Could they be doing more harm than good? Let’s uncover the real story behind ice baths and explore the science, the potential risks, and the best practices with this cool therapeutic approach.

What Is Cold Water Therapy?

Cold water therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is a therapeutic technique that exposes your body to cold temperatures. That cold might be in the form of cold water in a bath or shower, or a cryotherapy chamber. Cold therapy has become incredibly popular among athletes, fitness fans, and people looking to improve their physical and mental well-being.

Common Types of Cold Water Therapy

To understand the different ways that cryotherapy is done, let’s look at some of the most popular cold water therapy options.

  • Cold Water Immersion: The most common type of cold water therapy is a bath. As you might expect, this involves fully immersing your body (usually up to your neck or chest) in cold water. This can be done in an ice bath, cold plunge pool, or even a natural body of water like a lake or river.
  • Ice Baths: Ice baths, also known as cold baths, are a popular kind of cold water therapy. Like cold water therapy, you fill a tub with cold water and ice and then submerge your body. This is done for a set period of time.
  • Cold Showers: Another easy and affordable cold water therapy option is taking a cold shower. For this type of cryotherapy, you gradually adjust the water temperature to colder settings. This gives your body the chance to adjust to the lower temperatures without the shock of an ice bath.
  • Cryo Chambers: Cryotherapy chambers, also known as cryo saunas, are specialised devices that use extremely cold air (typically below -100°C). The treatment exposes your entire body to cold temperatures for a short duration.

What Do Ice Baths Do to the Body?

What happens to the body during an ice bath is relatively straightforward. You get constriction of your blood vessels and blood flow to the area wherever you have ice or cold applied. So, if it’s your entire body in the cold, you’re going to get constriction of the 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.

Are Ice Baths Dangerous?

Ice bath safety is always a major question and that makes sense. We all know that cold weather can be dangerous, especially when you aren’t dressed properly for the weather. While it may seem a bit scary to expose your skin to ice and cold, there are safe ways to do so. 

When done correctly, experts agree that cold therapy is safe. Extensive research has been done that shows that ice baths are safe if used correctly. The key to safe ice baths is following the rules and knowing how to properly protect yourself.

Tips for Ice Bath Safety

If you are thinking about taking an ice bath, it is essential to know what you are getting into. Here are a few tips that you need to keep in mind for safe cold therapy:

  • Avoid hypothermia: Water colder than 15 degrees C can lower your body temperature to a dangerous level if you are in the water too long. While your body can temporarily cope with the cold, limit your exposure to ten minutes, or a maximum of 15 minutes per session.
  • Know your heart risk: Suddenly covering your body in cold water is probably going to raise your blood pressure and increase stress on your heart. If you have a heart condition, you need to get advice from a healthcare professional before starting with ice baths.
  • Prevent numbness: Exposing yourself to cold temperatures for too long can cause numbness in your hands and feet. It is crucial to warm up slowly after an ice bath.

Why It Is Important to Warm Up Slowly After an Ice Bath

The safe way to warm up after an ice bath is gradually and patiently. Ice baths lower your body temperature very quickly and that puts a lot of stress on your body. To safely get back to your normal temperature, it’s vital not to rush the warming-up process. Abruptly going from cold to hot can shock your system.

Here’s why a measured, step-by-step warm-up is vital:

  • Avoid shock: Slowly warming up prevents your body from going into shock. Suddenly shifting from the cold state of an ice bath to hot conditions can severely shock your system. This might cause you to shiver, faint, or feel even more uncomfortable because you have forced your body to adjust abruptly. Slow warming gives your body time to acclimatise steadily and avoids the jolt of sharp temperature swings.
  • Prevent hypothermia in an ice bath: Gradual rewarming is key to preventing hypothermia. Prolonged cold exposure in an ice bath will cause your body to lose heat extremely fast. If you warm up too quickly afterwards, your core temperature could still plummet to hypothermic levels. When you opt for a slow warming-up process, you are giving your body time to steadily recover its normal level of warmth.
  • Protect your blood vessels: Cold exposure makes your blood vessels constrict tightly. Heating up too quickly afterwards causes them to dilate rapidly, which puts a strain on your circulatory system. Be careful to warm up slowly after an ice bath enables your blood vessels to normalise their width more gently and steadily.
  • Prevent muscle stiffness and injury: Slow rewarming prevents muscle issues by giving your muscles a chance to relax and limber up first before getting back to your normal journey. When you expose your body to cold water, it causes your muscles to stiffen. If you do any sudden, jarring movements right after your ice bath, you can cause pulls, tears, or strains. To stay safe, plan time into your ice bath routine for relaxing and getting your body back to its normal state. 
  • Promoting optimal recovery: If you are using ice baths after intense workouts to promote healing, it is particularly important to ease back to your regular temperature. This helps you in your recovery process by tamping down inflammation and post-exercise soreness.

How to Warm Up After an Ice Bath

To safely and effectively warm up after cold therapy, be strategic. Here’s how:

  • Get dressed in warm clothes: When you get out of the ice bath, get dressed in warm, dry clothing or wrap up in a blanket to start raising your body temperature.
  • Go to a warm space: Go to a warmer place, like a heated room, and let your body naturally warm up over time.
  • Do gentle movements: Carefully do gentle movements and stretches to gradually increase your blood flow and restore flexibility to your muscles.
  • Look to hydration and nutrition: Drink a warm beverage like herbal tea after your bath and look at nourishing foods to help raise your internal temperature.
  • Be patient and listen to your body: It will take time for your body to fully recover and get back to its normal temperature. Take it slow and don’t jump into intense exercise right after an ice bath.

Are Ice Baths Good for You?

Ice baths have a range of potential health benefits but they are not a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. Before jumping into cold therapy, it is important to look at your individual risk factors.

Who Shouldn’t Do Ice Baths?

While ice baths can provide some benefits, they are not suitable for everyone. People with certain conditions or risk factors should skip the ice bath trend. Exposing your body to cold causes your blood flow to be restricted to preserve your core body temperature. This blood vessel constriction is dangerous if you have conditions like hypertension, arrhythmias, or coronary artery disease. Likewise, if you have diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, or Raynaud’s phenomenon, ice baths aren’t recommended.

Here is a full look at who should avoid ice baths:

  • Any with a heart condition like coronary artery disease or arrhythmias
  • People with high blood pressure
  • Anyone with diabetes or prediabetes
  • People with peripheral vascular disease
  • Anyone with Raynaud’s phenomenon
  • Those who are very elderly or very young
  • Pregnant women
  • Anyone on medications that cause shivering

It is always a good idea to talk to your doctor before trying cold therapy. Even if you have no risk factors, it is smart to start slowly and carefully follow the best practices.

What Are the Proven Ice Bath Benefits?

While many of the wellness trends that you see on social media are not based on solid science or research, ice baths do have a foundation in the real world. Researchers around the globe have been able to identify a range of evidence-based benefits linked to the proper and strategic use of ice baths.

  • Reduced muscle soreness: Multiple studies have shown that ice baths can decrease delayed onset muscle soreness after intense exercise. Because the cold is able to constrict blood vessels and reduce inflammation and swelling, it prevents the discomfort that often follows demanding workouts.
  • Faster muscle recovery: Ice baths have been shown to help clear lactic acid buildup from muscles. This is an important process because it can aid muscle recovery. That means that you will be ready for your next workout more quickly.
  • Injury treatment: The effects of ice baths can work to reduce pain and swelling from soft tissue injuries like sprains. Of course, any time that you have a serious injury, it is crucial to see a healthcare professional. If your injury is minor and doesn’t need medical care, cold therapy can help.

What Are the Potential Ice Bath Side Effects?

Along with benefits, there are also some potential side effects to be aware of with ice bath use.

  • Lowered immunity: Frequent or extended cold exposure triggers a stress response that may temporarily suppress immune function and increase illness risk.
  • Aggravated injuries: Extreme cold can reduce blood flow and worsen swelling and pain with acute injuries. Avoid ice baths with torn tendons, muscles, or ligaments.
  • Allergic reactions: Some people have skin reactions to rapid cold exposure, like hives or itching.

Are Ice Baths Good for Your Heart?

The effects of ice baths on heart health are complex and depend on individual factors. Generally speaking, moderate exposure may improve heart health by activating the nervous system and exercising blood vessels. At the same time, sudden cold stress can raise blood pressure and heart rate to worrying levels for some people. That’s why anyone with a heart disease should consult their doctor first.

What Are the Ice Bath Benefits for Skin?

Some people advocate ice baths for skin health, but more research is needed on these cosmetic claims. While ice baths may initially leave your skin red and irritated, many devoted fans claim that consistent cold exposure improves skin tone, reduces cellulite dimpling, and makes skin look younger. However, minimal research corroborates these cosmetic benefits so far.

What Are the Mental Health Benefits of Ice Baths?

Along with physical impacts, ice baths may also provide some psychological benefits. Many ice bath enthusiasts report a euphoric afterglow once they get past the first sharp cold shock.

For many people, the challenging nature of ice baths evokes a sense of accomplishment and they may also help build mental resilience. Again, however, these psychological benefits need more scientific verification.

How Many Ice Baths a Week Should I Take?

There are no fixed rules, but experts suggest limiting frequency to avoid overexposure. It is generally recommended to limit to two to three short ice baths per week as part of an overall recovery regimen. Taking an ice bath every day could be counterproductive.

How Long Do I Need to Stay In an Ice Bath for the Benefits?

Research shows most benefits occur within the first five to 15 minutes. Staying in beyond 15 minutes provides minimal additional advantages and increases negative effects. With approval from a healthcare professional, start with shorter five to ten-minute baths and only extend time gradually as tolerated.

Getting Started with Ice Baths: Take Away Message

Current evidence suggests occasional brief ice baths can aid workout recovery and provide some benefits like decreased muscle soreness. At the same time, more research is still needed on their effects, ideal usage, and long-term safety. Like any therapy, ice baths should be used strategically rather than excessively. Talk to your doctor before starting an ice bath regimen.

Feeling inspired? Get an essential checkup before starting ice baths and get an expert opinion on how they may be beneficial or harmful to you. We are here to help anytime at hello@quantumortho.com.sg, +65 6235 8781, or on WhatsApp at +65 8028 4572. 

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Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

About the Author

Dr James Tan is a skilled orthopaedic surgeon who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.

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