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Sore Muscle Relief - Cold Baths Effective for Achy Muscles, but Risky

Updated on November 18, 2016
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John uses Biochemistry and Physiology (PhD) skills to review health topics, disease prevention, home remedies for ailments & better health

Everyone has seen footballers taking a swim in an icy ocean or a cool pool following a match as part of the wind down after a game. But have you ever wondered why they don't take a warm bath to soak achy muscles? It is true that research and experience has shown that taking a cold bath after exercise can provide relief for sore muscles but there are risks associated with the non-elite athletes using this method. The sudden temperature change can provide a shock to the system including the heart and circulation. The concept behind submerging the muscles in cold or icy water, sometimes called cryotherapy, is to reduce swelling and the associated soreness and stiffness that develops after hard workouts. The usual treatment for a bump or muscle strain is to apply ice packs, but this is done to stop bruising and slow the circulation to the affected area an to reduce inflammation. Cold baths are done much later and have a similar effect.

Researchers in Britain undertook a small study where subjects were asked to get into a bath or other container of ice cold water after cycling, running or resistance training.In most cases the volunteers spent between 5-24 minutes in water that was 10-15 degrees C. The research study found that there were benefits for reducing soreness in muscles when compared with simply resting or doing nothing. However other studies have shown that warm baths are also beneficial for relieving muscle soreness.

A review study of previous research published in the The Cochrane Library, combined data from 366 people in 17 separate studies. The various subjects immersed themselves in ice baths for a few minutes after cycling, lifting weights or running. The analysis showed that a short cold therapy baths reduced soreness by 20 %, compared with passive rest after exercise.

Risks of Cold Baths

Cold baths are particularly risky for people with heart and circulation problems. Also it is important that the water is clean for hygiene reasons. Some football clubs have a large container such as a wheelie bin, filled with cold water and ice that the players plunge into one after the other. This is risky because many players have injuries, open cuts and are covered i dirt and mudfrom the playing field and there are risks of infection.

Ice and cool water baths are part of the so called PRICE guidelines for managing soft tissue injury - Protect, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation(PRICE).

Why Do Cold Baths Work?

The reason why ice baths work is because intense physical exercise causes multiple minute tears in muscle fibers when muscles are strained during exercise. This damage to the muscles stimulates cell activity in the muscles to repair the damage and restore muscle strength. It also triggers inflammation and triggers delayed pain and soreness in the muscles that starts about 24 and 72 hours after exercise. Although there are no real guidelines regarding time or immersion and temperatures, most trainers and athletes apply common practices with temperature from 12 - 15 degrees C (54 - 60 degrees F) and use times ranging from of 5 - 10, extending sometimes to about 20 minutes.

The ice bath is thought to:

  • Narrow the blood vessels and reduce circulation
  • Help flush waste products such as lactic acid from the muscle tissues
  • Decrease the general metabolic rate in the tissues and slow down various physiological processes
  • Generally reduce tissue breakdown and reduce swelling
  • Then, with re-warming, the increased blood flow speeds circulation and improves the healing process.

The Scientific Research is Contradictory

A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine in 2008 found contrast water therapy (hot and cold baths) and cold water immersion baths helped athletes the recover from short maximal burst of exercise. This applied to short events such as stage races where competitors are required to repeat various high-intensity work loads on successive days. The researchers compared four different recovery methods:

  • Immersion in 38 degree C (100 degree F) water for about 15 minutes;
  • Immersion in a 15 degree C (59 degree F) pool for about 15 minutes;
  • About 15 minutes of complete rest.
  • Alternating between hot and cool water every minute for about 15 minutes;

The study found enhanced performance in the time trial and sprint events after both contrast water therapy and cool water immersion. However performance declined with both complete rest and hot water bath treatments.

In 2007, research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at how water therapy affected the development of delayed onset muscle soreness following intense sessions of leg press exercise. They found that the strength and power declined less reduction and recovered faster using contrast water therapy than for passive recovery.

By way of contrast, a research project published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in the 2007 found no real benefit from that ice-water immersion after heavy weight training. This study compared soreness levels after 1-min immersions in either a tepid bath (24 degrees Celsius) or an ice bath (5 degrees Celsius) following an intense workout.

They found that athletes who had ice immersion baths showed no benefits in terms of physical pain such as tenderness or swelling. However the athletes reported more leg pain the following day, when standing up than those who used tepid water bath treatment. The researchers concluded that Ice-water bath immersion seems to provide offers no benefit for controlling swelling, pain, isometric strength and general performance and may make some athletes sorer the next day.


Whether sports science research can prove the benefits of the ice bath theory or not, many athletes are convinced that ice baths helps them prevent injury, recover faster and they simply feel better. Clearly more research is needed before definitive statements can be made, however the results so far indicates the following:

  • Cold water immersion after hard exercise helps recovery as it is practiced by most professional sports teams who obviously regard it as beneficial.
  • Contract water therapy - Alternating warm water and cold water baths may also help athletes recover.
  • Very cold ice baths may not be necessary and increase the risk of stress and shock. Cool water baths at about 24 degrees C (75 degrees F). may work just as well as ice baths with less side effects and risks.
  • Passive recovery is not effective for speedy recovery and can be painful.
  • Active recovery methods may be just as good as cold water bath immersion methods for recovery from exercise.
  • Hot baths after hard exercise may be soothing and could reduce recovery times.

© janderson99-HubPages

© 2012 Dr. John Anderson


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