A recent study, published in The Cochrane Library, reveals that after exercise, a cold bath may be an effective way to prevent and help sore muscles. However, the researchers are not positive whether there may be dangerous side effects that could affect the person later on.

Cold water and ice baths are popular among athletes, both amateur and professional, when they are trying to reduce their sore, swollen, or stiff muscles. This is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOSM). Experts believe that immersing in cold water, also called cryotherapy, helps with reducing inflammation in muscles – and the pain that comes with it.

Researchers set forth to determine whether this method actually works, by analyzing 17 small trials, with 366 volunteers. After resistance training, cycling, or running, these volunteers were asked to immerse themselves into a cold water bath. Most of the people stayed in the water 24 minutes, with the water temperature at 10 to 15 degrees Celsius. During some of the trails, the water was colder, and the participants were asked to go in and out of the baths at certain times.

The trials that compared resting after exercise, instead of the cold water baths, showed that the cold water baths proved to be much more effective in helping sore muscles 1-4 days after exercise. There were only a few studies comparing the cold water baths to other methods of treating the muscle soreness.

Karyn Marshall Ice Bath
Champion weightlifter Karyn Marshall, taking an ice bath

Lead author of the study, Chris Bleakley, from the Heath and Rehabilitation Sciences department at the University of Ulster in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland commented:

“We found some evidence that immersing yourself in cold water after exercise can reduce muscle soreness, but only compared to resting or doing nothing. Some caution around these results is advisable because the people taking part in the trials would have known which treatment they received, and some of the reported benefits may be due to a placebo response.

There may be better ways to reduce soreness, such as warm water immersion, light jogging or using compression stockings, but we don’t currently have enough data to reach any conclusions about these interventions.”

It is difficult for researchers to determine exactly how much cold water immersion helps sore muscles, because of the wide variety of different temperatures, exercise, and timing that the different studies used. Also, the amount of evidence that there are possible side effects to the cold baths was inconclusive, due to the fact that most of the studies did not report any bad side effects. The researchers say it is necessary for more studies to be done in order to be sure of the effectiveness of cold water baths in treating muscle soreness.

Bleakley concludes:

“It is important to consider that cold water immersion induces a degree of shock on the body. We need to be sure that people aren’t doing anything harmful, especially if they are exposing themselves to very cold water for long periods.”

Written By Christine Kearney