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Exploring cold water therapy

Scroll through Instagram and you’ll likely see videos of people climbing into tubs filled with ice and frigid water, taking cold showers, or plunging into freezing alpine lakes. While you might be tempted to write off these feats as a social media trend, submerging your body in bone-chilling water is actually an age-old practice known as cold water therapy, a type of cryotherapy.

Cold water therapy is the use of water to promote health or manage disease, according to research. While it has a long history, it’s primarily used to speed healing after an injury, ease joint and muscle pain, and quicken recovery from exercise, among other possible health benefits.

Research on the topic has generally focused on pain, muscular injury prevention and recovery, and mood, and cold water therapy is considered a complementary therapy given that it’s an evolving field. Read on to learn about potential health benefits and the possible risks of cold water approaches for health and medical uses, and to evaluate if this therapy is worth discussing with your doctor.

History of Cold Water Therapy

Cultures around the world have used cold water therapy for thousands of years. For example, cold water immersion was used for therapeutic and relaxation purposes in ancient Greece and promoted by Roman physician Claudius Galen as a treatment for fever, according to a review published in February 2022 in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.

In the early 2000s, researchers turned their attention to cold water and exercise recovery. “A lot of the research that we see now shows how cold water influences circulation and how that plays into muscle damage that occurs as a result of exercise, and also some of the cellular processes that go into muscle soreness,” says Mathew Welch, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. As a result, many professional and everyday athletes turn to cold water therapy to help recover from exercise.

Recent interest in cold water therapy is thanks in part to Wim Hof. Hof, also known as “The Iceman,” is a Dutch extreme athlete who earned his nickname by breaking world records related to cold exposure. His feats include swimming underneath ice for approximately 217 feet and standing in a container while covered in ice cubes for more than 112 minutes, according to his website. He took what he learned from his cold experiences and created the Wim Hof Method, a combination of breath work, cold therapy, and commitment practices. Proponents claim that this method increases energy, boosts the immune system, improves sleep, and helps the body heal faster.

How Cold Water Therapy Works

Exposing your body to cold water causes the blood vessels in submerged areas to narrow (known as vasoconstriction), which directs blood to your organs, says Jonathan Leary, who has a doctorate in chiropractic medicine and is CEO and founder of Remedy Place, a wellness facility in New York City and California that offers ice bath classes.

Plus, water exerts pressure (known as hydrostatic pressure) on the body, which promotes blood flow to major organs like the heart, brain, and lungs, according to research. When more blood moves toward your major organs, it’s able to gather more oxygen and nutrients.

As soon as you emerge from the cold water, those same blood vessels expand (known as vasodilation), Dr. Leary says. When that happens, the oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood gets pumped back to your tissues, helping remove waste products, such as lactic acid, and lower inflammation, per research.

“You can’t have pain or disease without inflammation,” Leary says. As such, methods that lower inflammation, like cold water therapy, may be helpful for many health complaints.

Using cold water therapy on a regular basis may also have long-term benefits for your heart and blood vessels. Around every blood vessel is a muscle, so just like doing a bicep curl strengthens your biceps, cold water therapy strengthens your blood vessels, Leary explains. Over time, this may boost circulation by improving your blood vessels’ ability to circulate blood through your body.

Cold water therapy can be done at home, in a natural body of water, or at a fitness club, physical therapy clinic, or specialty wellness studio. However, it’s best to do cold water therapy under the guidance of a physical therapist, chiropractor, or other healthcare professional if you’re using it to recover from an injury, for sports performance, or to help with chronic pain.

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