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What Is a Contrast Bath?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 17, 2021

A contrast bath is a type of therapy that involves taking baths in warm and cold water. You alternate the hot and cold baths in sessions. This technique may help to improve blood circulation throughout your body.

Contrast bath therapy treats edema, stiff joints, inflammation of soft tissues, muscle spasms, and painful limbs (upper and lower). This treatment method is common with athletes. Athletes use it to treat muscle damage, sore or painful muscles, and to speed up recovery after injuries.

Contrast Bath Treatment Sites

Contrast bath therapy may be used on your:

  • Hands
  • Wrists
  • Forearms
  • Elbows
  • Feet
  • Knees
  • Ankle
  • Lower legs

Conditions Treated with Contrast Bath

Some of the common conditions managed using contrast bath therapy include:

How does it work? This therapy is more than 2,000 years old, but there is not enough evidence to say how or how well it works. However, diabetes and other conditions that cause circulation problems may cause contrast bath therapy not to work effectively.

How Contrast Bath Therapy Works

The process of a contrast bath is a form of hydrotherapy that involves repeatedly dipping a limb in hot and cold water. This gets done at a specific rate, temperature, and time. The repeated switching between the two temperatures may cause constricting and dilating of blood vessels, leading to a pump effect. This is believed by some to increase circulation into tissues throughout your body.

Even though this therapy is widely used, there is no specific protocol for how hot the water should be or how long it should take. Different professionals may use different timing and temperature to produce the best result.

Also, the increase in blood flow may lead to oxygenation of blood (improving the healing process). It may also improve the transport of waste products (solving edema). More oxygenation occurs due to the hot water. Hot water is thought by some researchers to cause your hemoglobin (a protein in your blood involved in transporting oxygen) to get oxygen more efficiently into your tissues.

How to do a Contrast Bath

As mentioned earlier, there are different opinions on the protocol to follow with contrast water bath therapy. However, there is a standard way you can do it:

  • Immerse the resting limb in warm (38°C–40°C) water first for 10 minutes.
  • Follow by immersing the limb in cold (8°C–10°C) water for one minute.
  • Then, dip the limb in hot water for four minutes alternated with a one-minute bath in the cold water.
  • Repeat the four- and one-minute immersion alternation three more times.
  • Undertake the whole process in 30 minutes.

Although taking a contrast bath may benefit you, not everyone is suitable for this type of treatment. Individuals with the following conditions may be advised against undergoing this therapy:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Open wounds
  • Untreated or infected wounds
  • Diabetes
  • Poorly managed epilepsy
  • Hydrophobia (the fear of water)

About Hydrotherapy

Contrast bath is only one type of hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy means using water to manage a condition. When getting your hydrotherapy session, treatment may take place in a:

  • Hot tub
  • Pool
  • Whirlpool
  • Physiotherapy tank
  • Whirlpool spa

Hydrotherapy has been used in an attempt to help manage the following conditions:

Your body may respond differently to hydrotherapy — it depends on many factors including the temperature of the water. There has been some research on the effects of hydrotherapy. However, there is limited information on how hydrotherapy manages the conditions mentioned above.

It is crucial that any hydrotherapy treatment procedure be done in clean, uncontaminated water. Contaminated water could cause a lot of issues, like infections. This may become a problem, because many individuals undergoing the treatment may be at higher risk of getting an infection. Also, avoid accidentally ingesting the water or allowing any open wounds to come in direct contact with the water.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Hydrotherapy."

‌Dominican University of California: "A Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing Contrast Baths to Cryotherapy in Patients with a Wrist Fracture."

Journal of Athletic Training: "Contrast Baths, Intramuscular Hemodynamics, and Oxygenation as Monitored by Near-Infrared Spectroscopy."

National Council of Osteopathic Research: "Contrast bathing – a brief summary of the evidence."

‌North American Journal of Medical Sciences: "Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body."

‌Physiotherapy Theory and Practice: Effects of contrast baths on skin blood flow on the dorsal and plantar foot in people with type 2 diabetes and age-matched controls."

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