Ice Baths For Sore Muscles: Is It Worth It?

Ice baths involve submerging your body (or just the over-used body part) into a tub of chilly water at 59 degrees or less for about 5 to 15 minutes. Athletes who take ice baths do so shortly after their run or game to prevent getting a condition called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).

There are several theories about how ice baths work. One theory says it reduces inflammation of irritated muscle tissue. Another says it slows down metabolism and restricts circulation, which might reduce swelling, lactic acid buildup, and tissue damage. Recent studies on how ice baths work, however, were inconclusive. Scientists discovered that while they certainly helped reduce pain, they found no evidence that they actually reduced swelling. Ice baths might temporarily reduce circulation, but they found no correlating evidence that this prevented DOMS.

Does that mean ice baths don't work? Not at all. It means the process has not been well studied. There are very few studies focused on the effects of ice baths and none that provide absolute information. One recent study, however, found that ice baths do reduce pain by about 20 percent, but only compared to doing nothing at all. Other pain reducing measures, like taking warm baths, using alternated warm/cold compresses, taking ibuprofen, using compression socks, or stretching were just as good.

Should you give ice baths a try? Soaking in an ice bath is not safe for everyone. People with circulatory, respiratory, and thyroid problems shouldn't consider it without their doctor's permission. If your health is good, however, and you're hearty enough to brave the cold, taking an occasional post-sport ice bath might be just what the doctor ordered for preventing or reducing pain.

Fill a bucket, tub, or ice chest with tap water and ice cubes and go for it. If it's your legs, back, or abs that have been heavily exercised, try sitting in an ice bath full enough to submerge the affected area. If it's your arm however, fill your ice chest enough to submerge just your arm.

Nobody says taking an ice bath is fun, but if 15 minutes in ice helps you avoid days of aches and pains that make your every move painful, it might be worth it. If it sounds like torture, however, chances are that a warm bath or some ibuprofen might do just as good a job.




British Journal of Sports Medicine
2007 June; 41(6): 392-397.
Icewater immersion and delayed‐onset muscle soreness: a randomised controlled trial
Kylie Louise Sellwood, Peter Brukner, David Williams, Alastair Nicol, and Rana Hinman
National Institutes of Health