Review Finds Method Effective, but Safety Evidence Lacking
Feb. 14, 2012 -- Can an ice bath really ward off the muscle soreness that can kick in a day or so after an intense workout?
According to a new review, it is better than doing nothing and equal to other remedies such as compression stockings or stretching.
Ice baths are favored 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 tells WebMD.
The review is published in The Cochrane Library.
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?"
Ice Baths After Hard Workouts
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, declines in strength, and localized muscle soreness.
Experts think it's due to mechanical damage that occurs to the muscle fibers. That can lead to inflammation and pain.
To combat the soreness, athletes take the ice baths in spas, large containers, or the home bathtub.
Typically the water temperature is less than 59 degrees Fahrenheit. People sit in the ice baths for five minutes or longer.
Ice Baths: The Review
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.