What Is Cold Water Therapy?

  • Anila Vijayan Bachelor of Homoeopathic Medicine & Surgery, India

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Overview

Water is an essential compound in our daily lives, playing a crucial role in maintaining health and treating various medical conditions. Both hot and cold water offer benefits that contribute to a healthy lifestyle.

Cold water therapy, also known as cryotherapy, involves the use of water at temperatures below 15°C to treat certain conditions. The main purpose of cryotherapy is to  withdraw  heat from body tissues and alter the blood flow. Methods of cold water therapy include cold water shower, swimming, cold water immersion and localised ice application. This therapy helps in reducing symptoms of depression, pain and migraine. 

While cold water therapy is not a primary treatment, it can be effective in alleviating sympoms associated with  various conditions. It is important to perform the therapy in controlled sessions to minimise the risk of cold water shock.

Historical background

Cold water therapy has been used for therapeutic purposes, health and for recovery purposes for centuries. This practice of using cold water application for therapeutic purposes is referred to as cryotherapy.1 Some of the cold water techniques are: 

Cold water immersion: 

  • The use of cold water immersion dates back to as early  as 3500 BC, where they were used for therapeutic purposes. Ancient Greeks utilised cold water immersion for therapeutic purposes such as  relaxation and socialisation.
  • In the 4th century BC, Hippocrates documented its medicinal use, and Roman physician Claudius Galen employed it to treat fever. 
  • Current analysis recommends the use of cold water immersion for 10-15 minutes at 10-15 °C significantly promotes recovery and reduces the muscle tissue temperature. Ongoing studies aim to better understand post-immersion changes in muscle temperature, blood flow and recovery process.3,4

Ice application: 

  • Ice application is the most traditional form of cryotherapy. 
  • Baron Dominique Larrrey, Napoleon’s surgeon to the Grand Army, was  one of the earliest proponents, recommending  ice and snow  for painless amputations and operations on soldiers.
  • Ice’s main therapeutic benefit is to decrease the temperature of the tissue. As application of ice in sport injury management gained popularity, the evidence of its use was limited. 
  • Research have demonstrated the positive use of ice application upon inflammatory cytokines.6

Cold air application: 

  • As cold air immersion and ice application methods were successful in the recovery process, application of cold air for healing was a new technique. 
  • Cold air was commonly administered in the form of liquid nitrogen or refrigerated air. 
  • Application of cold air in the form of whole body cryotherapy (WBC), which helps in the onset of muscle sensation, increases activation and anti-inflammatory cytokines. 
  • Around 1978 in Japan Dr. Toshima Yamaguchi used this therapy in treating rheumatoid arthritis and in general pain management. During his initial work he found out that whole body cryotherapy (WBC) leads to decrease in temperature and leads to release of endorphins and helps in reducing the pain. 
  • Whole body cryotherapy got used in various conditions in the sporting world for recovery from inflammation and reducing the recovery time.2,7

Benefits of cold water therapy

Cold water therapy helps to improve the natural healing powers of the human body, which helps in various medical conditions. This therapy improves blood circulation, reduces the inflammation and helps in managing the body weight. 

Some of the benefits are: 

Improves recovery from exercise: 

Cold water therapy helps in reducing muscle soreness that occurs after exercise. Most of the athletes, healthcare professionals and licensed trainers use this therapy to repair the damaged muscle tissue.5

Reduce pain: 

Cold therapy decreases the flow of pain sensation through the nerves to the brain, they dull the nerve transmission sent to the brain. Cold therapy reduces the inflammation and relieves the pain. 

Increases immunity: 

Traditional way to have a bath is in hot water, when changing it to cold water even for a few minutes it might protect the person from viruses, and the cold water stimulates the blood cells (white blood cells) that fight against the infection.

Increases metabolism: 

A cold water bath causes the body to work harder to stay warm, burning  more calories and increasing metabolism. This effect is more pronounced when combined with a healthy diet and regular exercise. 

Improves circulation: 

Cold water therapy prompts the body to increase blood flow to maintain normal body temperature, speeding up muscle recovery post-exercise and enhancing circulatory system efficiency. 

Reduces depression: 

Cold bath can boost mood and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. The shock of cold water sends electrical impulses to the brain, increasing energy, clarity and mood.8,9

How to take cold water therapy

There is no particular way to take cold water showers but here are some suggestions that could help in getting a good response. First, consult a doctor to ensure that cold water therapy is safe for you and will not worsen any existing conditions.  

  • The benefit of a cold shower is its convenience; you can do it at home. The water should be kept  below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Make sure that there is some present in your house if you need any sort of assistance. If you are going outside for cold water therapy, ensure you are not alone and the water is safe. 
  • Take the shower slowly. Start with r 30 seconds and gradually increase to 1 minute.
  • Cold water showers can be taken for 2 to 3 minutes. This duration provides benefits without causing harm.
  • Athletic trainers often recommended a post - workout shower that alternates between hot and cold water for 3 minutes. 
  • Plan to get warm afterwards. Have towels, dry clothes, a hot drink and a warm place ready after your cold bath.
  • If you plan to undergo cold water therapy outside such as a swimming pool or therapy centre, make sure that you are completely warmed up before driving or traveling. 

Risk of cold water therapy

Cold water therapy has many positive effects but if it is not done properly can be dangerous and can lead to a life-threatening condition. Long exposure to cold water therapy can cause some of the following conditions: 

  • Long duration of cold exposure can cause frostbite (damage to skin and tissues caused by long exposure to cold temperatures) and hypothermia
  • Changes in blood pressure lead to arrhythmia
  • Infection if the skin is broken
  • Increase in pain
  • Reduced muscle activity
  • Cold water shock can occur as the heart rate is increased during cold exposure and can lead to difficulty in breathing

FAQs

What does cold water therapy do?

Cold water therapy can reduce symptoms of certain disease conditions. It can reduce pain, reduce inflammation, improve blood circulation and decrease symptoms of depression.

How long can we do cold water therapy?

Cold water therapy should be started slowly to avoid adverse effects. Begin with shorter durations and gradually increase. Typically, sessions can last from 3 to 5 minutes.

Who should not do cold water therapy?

People with certain health conditions should consult their doctor before they start doing cold water therapy. People with diabetes, certain skin injuries or skin disease should avoid cold water therapy to prevent infection and tissue damage.

Is it okay to take cold water showers everyday?

Cold water therapy can be recommended daily, especially if the person engages in regular workouts. 

Can cold water therapy stop anxiety?

Cold water shower works as a shock therapy where it sends electrical impulses to the brain that increase energy, clarity and mood. This process lowers the heart rate, calms the individual and helps reduce anxiety. 

Summary

  • Cold water therapy, also known as cryotherapy, utilises water at temperatures below 15°C to treat specific conditions.
  • The main purpose is to withdraw heat from body tissues and alter blood flow, aiding in reducing symptoms of depression, pain and migraine. 
  • Methods of cold water therapy include cold water shower, swimming, cold water immersion and localised ice application. 
  • While not a primary treatment, cold water therapy can effectively reduce  the symptoms associated with various conditions. 
  • Controlled sessions are crucial to minimise the risk of cold water shock and optimise the therapeutic benefit.

References

  1. Allan R, Malone J, Alexander J, Vorajee S, Ihsan M, Gregson W, et al. Cold for centuries: a brief history of cryotherapies to improve health, injury and post-exercise recovery. Eur J Appl Physiol [Internet]. 2022 May [cited 2024 Feb 14];122(5):1153–62. Available from: https://link.springer.com/10.1007/s00421-022-04915-5.
  2. Lombardi G, Ziemann E, Banfi G. Whole-body cryotherapy in athletes: from therapy to stimulation. An updated review of the literature. Front Physiol [Internet]. 2017 May 2 [cited 2024 Feb 14];8:258. Available from: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fphys.2017.00258/full
  3. G. Tsoucalas, M. Sgantzos, Marianna Karamanou, K. Gritzalis, G. Androutsos. Hydrotherapy: Historical Landmarks Of A Cure All Remedy. 2015 Sep;50:430–2. Available From: Https://Www.Researchgate.Net/Profile/Gregory-Tsoucalas/Publication/316062869
  4. Lamotte G, Boes CJ, Low PA, Coon EA. The expanding role of the cold pressor test: a brief history. Clin Auton Res [Internet]. 2021 Apr [cited 2024 Feb 9];31(2):153–5. Available from: https://link.springer.com/10.1007/s10286-021-00796-4
  5. Freitag L, Clijsen R, Deflorin C, Taube W, Taeymans J, Hohenauer E. Intramuscular temperature changes in the quadriceps femoris muscle after post-exercise cold-water immersion (10°C for 10 min): a systematic review with meta-analysis. Front Sports Act Living [Internet]. 2021 May 6 [cited 2024 Feb 14];3:660092. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fspor.2021.660092/full
  6. Guillot X, Tordi N, Laheurte C, Pazart L, Prati C, Saas P, et al. Local ice cryotherapy decreases synovial interleukin 6, interleukin 1β, vascular endothelial growth factor, prostaglandin-E2, and nuclear factor kappa B p65 in human knee arthritis: a controlled study. Arthritis Res Ther [Internet]. 2019 Dec [cited 2024 Feb 9];21(1):180. Available from: https://arthritis-research.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13075-019-1965-0
  7. J. Malone J, Hodges D, Roberts C, K. Sinclair J, M. Page R, Allan R. Effect of alterations in whole-body cryotherapy (Wbc) exposure on post-match recovery markers in elite Premier League soccer players. bs [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2024 Feb 14];39(1):31–6. Available from: https://www.termedia.pl/doi/10.5114/biolsport.2021.102931
  8. Mooventhan A, Nivethitha L. Scientific evidence-based effects of hydrotherapy on various systems of the body. North Am J Med Sci [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2024 Feb 14];6(5):199. Available from: http://www.najms.org/text.asp?2014/6/5/199/132935
  9. Kelly JS, Bird E. Improved mood following a single immersion in cold water. Lifestyle Medicine [Internet]. 2022 Jan [cited 2024 Feb 14];3(1):e53. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/lim2.53

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Anila Viijayan

Bachelor of Homoeopathic Medicine & Surgery, India

A homoeopathic physician with a wealth of knowledge accumulated through rigorous education and extensive clinical experience. Beyond confines of clinic, have expertise in conducting seminars, writing insightful articles, and actively participating in medical communities. Additionally, possesses a comprehensive understanding of medical insurance processes and managing health clinic solely.

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