Taking a cold-water or ice bath may reduce exercise-related muscle soreness but it's not clear whether it can cause harmful side effects, a new evidence review indicates.
The use of cold or ice baths is increasingly popular among elite and amateur athletes as a way to reduce muscle inflammation that can lead to stiffness, swelling and soreness a day or more after a workout.
In this study, researchers reviewed 17 small clinical trials of cold baths that included a total of 366 people. In trials that compared cold baths to resting or no intervention, cold baths were associated with a significant reduction in muscle soreness one to four days after exercise.
In most trials, participants spent five to 24 minutes in water that was between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, although in some cases the water was colder or participants were asked to get in and out of the water at set times.
However, few of the trials compared cold-water immersion to other interventions, noted the authors of the review published in the journal The Cochrane Library.
"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," lead author Chris Bleakley, of the health and rehabilitation sciences department at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, said in a journal news release.
"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," he added.
Most of the studies failed to report any harmful side effects, so there is a lack of information about the potential risks of cold water immersion. Higher-quality studies are needed, the researchers said.
"It is important to consider that cold-water immersion induces a degree of shock on the body," Bleakley noted. "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."
(HealthDay News, February 2012)
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