Hide this
Cold Water Immersion

Story at-a-glance +

  • Cold-water baths appear to be significantly more effective than rest in relieving delayed-onset muscle soreness, which typically occurs one to four days after exercise or other physical activity
  • Cold water immersion, or “cryotherapy,” is thought to help reduce muscle inflammation and pain after exercise
  • Most studies on cold water immersion report no or minimal side effects, but it will shock your body to some degree, so you need to make sure the water is not too cold, and that you do not stay in it for too long
  • Other options to help prevent sore muscles include the use of cold packs, eating foods that contain carnosine, such as grass-fed beef and chicken, eating ginger or trying acceleration training using a Power Plate
 

Muscle Soreness -- Is Cold Water Immersion An Effective Treatment?

April 13, 2012 | 71,488 views
Share This Article Share

By Dr. Mercola

Regular exercise, participating in athletics, and even working in your backyard or doing strenuous household chores can leave your muscles stiff, sore, and uncomfortable for days afterward.

You may feel just fine immediately after the activity, but within 24 hours, you start to feel pain.

This is called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and for some, this discomfort is enough to make you think twice before going back to the gym or engaging in activities you would otherwise enjoy.

Naturally, if given the option, most would choose to prevent the muscle soreness that follows intense exercise or physical activity, but so far the research looking into what methods are actually effective has been scant.

That said, cold water and ice baths, otherwise known as cold water immersion or "cryotherapy," is a popular technique among amateur and professional athletes, as it is thought to help reduce muscle inflammation and pain after exercise, as well as speed recovery time.

Researchers from the Health and Rehabilitation Sciences department at the University of Ulster in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland, recently looked into the science behind this technique, and found cold-water baths did appear to offer relief from sore muscles.

A Cold Water Bath After Exercise May Prevent Sore Muscles

After analyzing 17 trials involving over 360 people who either rested or immersed themselves in cold water after resistance training, cycling or running, researchers found the cold-water baths were much more effective in relieving sore muscles one to four days after exercise.

They concluded:

"There was some evidence that cold-water immersion reduces muscle soreness at 24, 48, 72 and even at 96 hours after exercise compared with 'passive' treatment."

Just how cold does the water need to be? In this case, most of the studies involved a water temperature of 10-15 degrees C (50-59 degrees F), which participants stayed in for about 24 minutes. Some of the trials involved colder temperatures or "contrast immersion," which means alternating between cold and warm water (this did not show a significant benefit compared to rest).

Should You Try This at Home?

Most studies on cold water immersion report no or minimal side effects, so if you're willing to spend 20 minutes or so in a cold tub of water, you may very well find some relief. Of course, common sense must be used. When you immerse yourself in cold water, it will shock your body to some degree, so you need to make sure the water is not too cold, and that you do not stay in it for too long.

If you don't like the idea of full-body cryotherapy, you can also try a more targeted approach by applying a cold pack to a specific area of your body. While this won't give you full-body relief from muscle soreness, it can be beneficial for an injury or a pulled muscle.

Cold works by lowering the damaged tissue's temperature and locally constricting blood vessels. Using cold therapy immediately after an injury helps prevent bruising and swelling from the waste and fluid build-up. Cold also helps numb nerve endings, providing you with instant, localized pain relief.

Ideally, it is best to use cold treatments for the first 48 to 72 hours. You can apply the ice for 20 minutes, then remove for 20 minutes as this will minimize any potential damage. Start early and repeat as often as you can. What kind of cold treatment should you use?

There's ice, of course, if it's available. However, you want to take great care in protecting your skin from the intense cold. Always use a cloth or towel wrap. A bag of frozen peas can come in very handy for this purpose.

Gel packs are an excellent choice as they're convenient and easy to use. (Before you choose a gel pack, know what's inside. Many are filled with toxic chemicals that can eventually leak.) Whichever option you use, to get the best benefits from cold treatment, be sure to use a wrap over the ice pack to improve the contact with your skin and to compress the injured area to minimize swelling.

Could a Cold-Water Bath Speed Up Your Metabolism Too?

There may be more reasons than one to consider lounging in a cold bath after your workout. Aside from helping to ease muscle soreness, it may also boost your metabolism and fat-burning abilities.

Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Work Week, also published a book called The Four-Hour Bodyi, which includes the concept of activating your brown fat to boost fat burning by exposing yourself to frigid temperatures. He claims you can increase your fat burning potential by as much as 300 percent simply by adding ice therapy to your dieting strategy. A LiveStrong article backs up Ferriss' claim statingii:

"A NASA scientist told ABC News that's no hyperbole. In studying the effects of temperature on astronauts, he saw people's metabolism boost by 20 percent in environments as mild as 60 degrees. A Joslin researcher told National Public Radio that 3 oz. of brown fat could burn 400 to 500 calories daily."

Ferriss' Ice Therapy is based on the premise that by cooling your body, you're essentially forcing it to burn much more calories by activating your brown fat. His suggestions, from easy to 'hard core,' include the following. If you want to give his technique a try, make sure you advance slowly. It may be inadvisable to go straight to the ice bath if you're not used to frigid temperatures:

  • Place an ice pack on your upper back and upper chest for 30 minutes per day (you can do this while relaxing in front of the TV for example)
  • Drinking about 500 ml of ice water each morning
  • Cold showers
  • Immersing yourself in ice water up to your waist for 10 minutes, three times per week. (Simply fill your tub with cold water and ice cubes)

What Else Can Help Prevent Sore Muscles?

Muscle soreness after exercise has traditionally been blamed on the buildup of lactic acid, but lactic acid actually does not remain in your muscles very long, and therefore is not a primary cause of DOMS. According to Steady Health, other possible theories for the cause of DOMS include:iii

  • Muscle soreness occurs because of microscopic tears in muscle fibers
  • It is caused due to tears in the tissue that connects the muscle and not the muscle itself
  • The damaged muscles release chemical irritants, which activate pain receptors
  • The damaged muscles become inflamed hence causing soreness
  • Changes in osmotic pressure, muscle spasms and a change in the way the muscle cells regulate calcium may be responsible for the soreness

The best strategies to help reduce muscle fatigue and soreness, whether you're a professional athlete or not, are those that will help to address some of these underlying causes. Among them:

  1. Eating a diet that includes naturally occurring carnosine, i.e. animal protein such as organic grass-fed beef or free-range chicken
  2. Carnosine is a pluripotent dipeptide composed of two amino acids, beta-alanine and histadine, found in many tissues but most notably in your muscles. It serves several important roles, two of which are:

    1. Buffering acids in your muscle
    2. Serving as a potent antioxidant

    Carnosine appears particularly useful for improving anaerobic high intensity exercise performance, but both of the functions mentioned above also explain how it may help reduce muscle soreness. As mentioned in Steady Health, damaged muscles become inflamed, which can cause soreness. Since carnosine is a potent anti-inflammatory antioxidant,, its presence in your muscle can serve to quell muscle inflammation.iv

    The foods with the highest amount of useful dietary dipeptides like carnosine would be animal proteins, like eggs, whey protein, poultry and beef. If you are considering using carnosine as a supplement it is important to realize that carnosine itself is probably not that useful because enzymes rapidly break it down to its constituent amino acids (beta-alanine and histidine), which are then absorbed by your muscles and re-formed back into carnosine.

  3. Taking a beta-alanine supplement

    As explained above, if you do decide to take a supplement, instead of taking carnosine, I recommend taking its primary precursor, beta-alanine, based on the science in this area. Beta-alanine has also been shown to be helpful for preventing muscle soreness when working out.

  4. Using acceleration training

    Whole Body Vibrational Training (WBVT), also known as Acceleration Training using a Power Plate, works by stimulating your white muscle fibers—which are your fast- and super-fast muscle fibers. The Power Plate kick-starts your pituitary gland into making more growth hormone (HGH), which helps you build lean body mass and burn fat, as well as accelerate tissue healing.

    Acceleration Training is quite different in that the vibrating plate targets your entire body, focusing on fully integrated motor and neurological patterns, which allows you to work ALL your muscles, and nerves, all at the same time.

    It's a truly revolutionary approach to fitness because it addresses your neuromuscular system as a whole, rather than one limb or muscle group at a time. The net result is a dramatic improvement in strength and power, flexibility, balance, tone and leanness, along with reduced pain and soreness.

    They aren't cheap but I am fortunate to have access to one virtually year-round, and it is my first therapy that I use when I get a muscle injury from an accident or over training.

  5. Eating ginger

    Ginger contains anti-inflammatory compounds and oils known as gingerols, which have pain-relieving effects. In one study on people who did exercises meant to induce muscle pain, those who ate two grams of ginger a day had a 25 percent reduction in exercise-induced muscle pain 24 hours after their workout, compared to those who took a placebo.v Researchers concluded:

    "This study demonstrates that daily consumption of raw and heat-treated ginger resulted in moderate-to-large reductions in muscle pain following exercise-induced muscle injury."

References: