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Ice Baths for Sore Muscles Can Work

Review Finds Method Effective, but Safety Evidence Lacking
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Ice Baths: The Review continued...

On average the people studied were 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.

Many of the studies did not look at complications.

Ice Baths: Why They Might Work

Experts are not sure how an ice bath works. "A number of studies used blood samples to examine the effect of immersion on various biomarkers of inflammation and muscle damage," Bleakley says.

However, he says, no studies found an effect on the inflammation response. The researchers did find a reduction in pain, and that can follow inflammation and muscle damage.

The ''placebo" effect -- a measurable effect that isn't due to the treatment -- may be at work,  Bleakley says.

"My advice to athletes is to find the strategy that they feel works best for them," he says. This could include a combination of water recovery, compression, stretching, and other methods, he says.

Water from the tap, with a few trays of ice cubes, could work, Bleakley says.

Ice Baths: Not for Everyone

Not everyone should attempt an ice bath, Bleakley warns. "People shouldn’t underestimate the amount of shock that immersion in cold water can have on the body," he says.

It can affect the heart, blood vessels, and respiratory system, Bleakley tells WebMD. It can raise blood pressure and heart rate. The long-term effects of regular ice baths aren't clear, he says.

Ice Baths Not Well Studied

The ice bath ''hasn't been well studied," says Sforzo, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine. The researchers looked through many data bases, dating back to 1929. They could find only the 17 studies they reviewed as scientific enough to include.

Many other treatments can help reduce muscle soreness, Sforzo says. Massage, for instance, ''is a lot more fun than doing ice water immersion," he says.

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