According to a new study ice baths are as effective as compression stockings and stretching to relieve soreness caused by an intense workout. “Ice bath reduced the muscle soreness by 20% and this was equivalent to other popular methods of recovery," says Chris Bleakley, PhD, a researcher at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. The results of this study are published in The Cochrane Library. According to Bleakley, more studies are required to see the safety of this method.
Gary A. Sforzo, PhD, a professor of exercise and sport sciences at Ithaca College, disagrees with this thought. According to him this is not better than taking a couple of ibuprofen and people would not want to go through the torture of being in an ice-cube-filled bath tub for recovery.
Muscle soreness caused by unaccustomed exercise or an increase in the intensity of the activity is referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and usually occurs after 24 to 48 hours. The most common symptoms of DOMS include stiffness, swelling, decline in strength and localized muscle soreness. According to experts DOMS is caused by mechanical damage of the muscle fibres. This damage later leads to inflammation and pain.
Generally to avoid muscle soreness, athletes take ice baths in spas or in bath tub with the water temperature below 59 degrees Fahrenheit. They sit in the ice baths for five minutes or longer to alleviate the symptoms.
A review of the scientific literature showed that there are 17 small studies focused on the use of ice baths to relieve muscle soreness. Most of the studies had 16 to 29 people as participants. In these studies, the temperature of the ice baths varied between 50 and 59 degrees and participants sat on the ice bath for up to 20 minutes. While sitting, the participants were immersed up to the waist in the ice bath. The method was used within 20 minutes of the work out and sometimes people took more than one ice bath. Fourteen of the studies in the review compared the use of ice bath with rest or no exercise. Some other studies compared ice baths with warm bath, warm-cold alternating baths, light jogging and compression stockings. There was no difference in the relief between the different remedies.
Experts are still not clear how an ice bath works in relieving the symptoms of soreness. A number of studies looking at the blood samples to examine the effect of ice baths on various biomarkers or inflammation and muscle damage did not find any association between them. The researchers did find a reduction in pain. According to Bleakley, the best solution for all these would be to develop a strategy that works best for each one. This could be a combination of water recovery, compression, stretching, and other methods.
Bleakley warns that not everyone should use an ice bath for relief, because the amount of shock caused by the immersion is very high. It can have serious effect on heart, blood vessels and respiratory system. It can increase the blood pressure and the heart rate.
According to Sforzo, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine, there are not many studies which focused on the effectiveness of ice baths to control muscle soreness. “There were only 17 small studies that was used in the analysis”, says Sforzo. He believes that other methods like massages are much effective in reducing the muscle soreness.