Do Ice Baths After Exercise Really Work?

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Recent research suggests that sitting in a tub full of ice after a hard workout may help prevent muscle soreness that can afflict athletes a day or so after a hard workout.

According to a new review of recent research, use of ice baths is better than doing nothing and equal to other remedies such as compression stockings or stretching.

Ice baths have been used for a number of years by some elite athletes and have become a habit of other exercisers as well.

“We only found an effect in favor of cold water immersion when it was compared to doing nothing — that is, passive rest after exercise,” says Chris Bleakley, PhD, a researcher at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. The ice bath reduced muscle soreness by about 20%, he says.

“There were no differences when cold water immersion was compared to other popular recovery interventions,” he says. So the best active treatment is still unclear, he stated to a WebMD writer in an article posted on that site on February 14, 2012.

Research on the safety of the method is lacking, Bleakley also found.

Those who shudder at the thought of an ice cube-filled bathtub will probably like one U.S.-based expert’s take on the new findings.  An ice bath ”does not seem to be any more effective for most people than taking a couple of ibuprofen,” says Gary A. Sforzo, PhD, a professor of exercise and sport sciences at Ithaca College, who reviewed the findings for WebMD. “So why go through this torture?”

The soreness that can occur after unaccustomed exercise or a stepped-up workout is known as delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. It usually peaks between 24 and 48 hours later. It involves muscle stiffness, swelling, a decline in strength, and localized muscle soreness.

Experts think DOMS occurs due to mechanical damage that occurs to the muscle fibers. This can lead to inflammation and pain.

To combat the soreness, athletes take the ice baths in spas, large containers, or the home bathtub.  The baths are typically cooled to less than 59 degrees Fahrenheit.  Users sit in the baths for periods of five minutes or longer.

Bleakley and his colleagues searched the medical literature to find studies of cold-water immersion to relieve DOMS. They found 17 small studies scientific enough to review. The studies included 366 people whose ages ranged from 16 to 29. The temperature of the ice baths varied among studies, usually about 50 to 59 degrees. People sat in the baths for five to 24 minutes. They usually were immersed up to the waist.

The ice baths were typically taken within 20 minutes of finishing the workout. In some studies, people took more than one ice bath after a workout.

Fourteen studies compared ice baths with rest or no treatment. Some studies compared ice baths to warm baths, warm-cold alternating baths, light jogging, and compression stockings. The researchers found no differences in relief between these remedies.

This research at this point is not seen as definitive.  There is a suggestion, however, that there is some science behind the practice.  At this point it appears, however, that there is no hard evidence that using ice baths provides better relief than acupuncture, use of hot water bottles, massage therapy, or even using over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications..

Several news outlets have recently published articles about the study conducted by researchers in Northern Ireland.  Information for this article was taken from WebMD, a leading online source for medical information for the general public.  Sports medicine and physical training are two of the subject areas students can study at the United States Sports Academy.  For more information on these programs, go to http://ussa.edu.