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Are ice baths healthy or just hype? A doctor explains

Here's how to do cold water immersion to reap the physical and mental health benefits.

Ice baths are the kind of wellness trend that seems so uncomfortable that you really want to know in advance if it's effective or not. This toe-numbing practice is commonly used by athletes to relieve muscle soreness and has also been praised by celebrities like Lady Gaga and Harry Styles on social media.

Renowned R&B singer Usher is such a fan of freezing soaks that he keeps an ice bath backstage at his Las Vegas residency, which he uses to rejuvenate his body in between shows, he told TODAY’s Sheinelle Jones during an interview

Those seem like great endorsements, but we all know that celebrities aren't health experts. So we talked to Dr. Dominic King, a sports medicine physician in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, to find out whether ice baths work, what they do and how to try them safely.

What do ice baths do to the body?

As the name suggests, ice baths involve submerging the body in a bath of icy cold water for a short period of time. Ice baths — or “cold water immersions” — are not new, but they have come in and out of popularity in recent years, King told 

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

The benefits of ice baths

Ice baths are typically used by athletes after workouts to ease sore muscles and improve recovery, said King. But the evidence has been debated. Historically, the science behind the effects of ice baths has been “pretty mixed,” said King, and some studies have even suggested that ice baths are a placebo.

However, a recent systematic review — the highest level of research, King noted — published in the journal Sports Medicine in February 2022 suggested otherwise. “It showed that cold water immersion was an effective recovery tool after high intensity exercise, specifically HIIT exercises,” said King. In the study, people who used ice baths after high intensity exercise reported feeling better, increased muscular power and improved soreness, he added. 

Researchers also observed positive outcomes for creatine kinase, an enzyme that is released into the bloodstream when muscle cells are damaged after strenuous exercise.

So there is research showing that ice baths can provide some benefit for people who do high-intensity exercise, King said, but there are mental and functional reasons why people do cold water immersion as well, he added.

  • Ice baths can reduce pain and inflammation. “It can numb pain receptors and bring down inflammation, so you can almost think of it as like a drug-free anesthetic,” King said. Patients who have inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, may find that cold water immersion helps reduce swelling or discomfort from flare-ups or after workouts, he added. 
  • They lower body temperature. Not surprisingly, ice baths can cool your body down very fast. In some cases, this can be lifesaving. “Historically, we’ve used [ice baths] in medicine to treat things like heat stroke,” said King, adding that it’s common to have tubs filled with ice on the sidelines of marathons. “We’ll get a lot of runners … and their core body temperature is 105, 106, 107 … and you need to bring down their core temperature very quickly,” King said. It’s important to note that while ice baths are used to treat heat stroke, “we don’t rely on an ice bath to just reduce a fever from an illness,” said King. “When you have a fever, the most important thing to do is to figure out where the fever is coming from, it could be an infection or another life-threatening condition,” said King, adding that you should see a healthcare provider.
  • Ice baths may help with focus and meditation. Another benefit of ice baths that King has heard from patients is that this helps with focus. “People sometimes do this as almost a post-workout meditation, so it helps them kind of focus on recovery and slow their heart rate,” King said. 
  • They may help you relax and sleep better. Cold water immersion may also help you feel more relaxed after a tough workout, King said. “Some people note that it helps them actually sleep better, so after getting really hot, really sweaty, and doing (an ice bath) they just feel rested,” he added. 

How to take an ice bath at home

In order to take an ice bath at home, you will need a bathtub or an immersion tub, water, ice and a thermometer. “Before you start, make sure whatever (tub) you’re using, you can safely get in and out of it,” said King.

First, fill the tub with cold water (about 60 degrees Fahrenheit) and have your containers or bags of ice ready to go nearby. Next, get in the tub and then slowly add the ice, making sure you can tolerate it, said King. You can start by soaking for about five minutes but should not go any longer than 10 minutes and the water should not get any colder than 53 degrees Fahrenheit or 11.6 degrees Celsius, he added.

If the water is too cold, this increases the risk of causing damage to the skin or tissues, King added. This is why using a thermometer and adding the ice after you get in is so important.

If it's your first time, King recommends starting out with water that is 68 degrees Fahrenheit or 20 degrees Celsius and only staying in five minutes.

Another option for beginners is to try a cold shower or ending your normal shower with a blast of cold water before taking the plunge. “If you don’t like that and your body doesn’t like that, cold water immersion and ice baths might not be for you,” King said.

Ice baths can be used as needed after intense workouts or once or twice a week if you are training regularly, King noted. One thing to keep in mind is that for athletes who do this more frequently, this is part of their job, King said, and they have a whole team helping them.

Are there risks to taking ice baths?

While, ice baths are generally considered safe, they are not recommended for everyone. “First and foremost, there’s medical conditions where you should check with your doctor beforehand because ice baths can have negative and potentially dangerous effects,” said King, adding that this has to do with the way the cold water constricts the blood vessels.

These conditions include heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, poor circulation, venous stasis and cold agglutinin disease, King said. 

Even if you don't have any of those pre-existing conditions, it's always a good idea to check with your doctor beforehand if you have any concerns about ice baths. King cautioned against children using ice baths, especially young children.

People should also make sure that they are not using ice baths to numb the pain from an underlying injury, King said. “If you actually had a fracture, or an injured ligament or tendon ... and you’re using this to push through the pain, that’s a big no-no," said King, adding that you'd need to see a sports medicine physician to diagnose the problem.