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One of the most popular articles on this website is, do ice baths work?
However, as time goes by, research updates and more information surmounts.
A recent study looked at all the data on ice baths, take a look:
“Seventeen small trials were included, involving a total of 366 participants. Study quality was low. The temperature, duration and frequency of cold-water immersion varied between the different trials as did the exercises and settings. The majority of studies failed to report active surveillance of pre-defined adverse events.Fourteen studies compared cold-water immersion with passive intervention. Pooled results for muscle soreness showed statistically significant effects in favour of cold-water immersion after exercise at 24 hour (standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.55, 95% CI -0.84 to -0.27; 10 trials), 48 hour (SMD -0.66, 95% CI -0.97 to -0.35; 8 trials), 72 hour (SMD -0.93; 95% CI -1.36 to -0.51; 4 trials) and 96 hour (SMD -0.58; 95% CI -1.00 to -0.16; 5 trials) follow-ups. These results were heterogeneous. Exploratory subgroup analyses showed that studies using cross-over designs or running based exercises showed significantly larger effects in favour of cold-water immersion. Pooled results from two studies found cold-water immersion groups had significantly lower ratings of fatigue (MD -1.70; 95% CI -2.49 to -0.90; 10 units scale, best to worst), and potentially improved ratings of physical recovery (MD 0.97; 95% CI -0.10 to 2.05; 10 units scale, worst to best) immediately after the end of cold-water immersion.Five studies compared cold-water with contrast immersion. Pooled data for pain showed no evidence of differences between the two groups at four follow-up times (immediately, 24, 48 and 72 hours after treatment). Similar findings for pooled analyses at 24, 48 and 72 hour follow-ups applied to the four studies comparing cold-water with warm-water immersion. Single trials only compared cold-water immersion with respectively active recovery, compression and a second dose of cold-water immersion at 24 hours.”
This study concluded:
“There was some evidence that cold-water immersion reduces delayed onset muscle soreness after exercise compared with passive interventions involving rest or no intervention. There was insufficient evidence to conclude on other outcomes or for other comparisons. The majority of trials did not undertake active surveillance of pre-defined adverse events. High quality, well reported research in this area is required.”
Clear evidence for ice baths is still absent, however it seems clear cold water immersion improves muscle soreness. However, this is insufficient evidence showing cold water immersion is better than active recovery or active recovery and cold water immersion is superior than only active recovery. Despite more research, the question remains unclear. Do ice baths work? What do you think?
  1. Bleakley C, McDonough S, Gardner E, Baxter GD, Hopkins JT, Davison GW. Cold-water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Feb 15;2:CD008262.
By G. John Mullen founder of the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, and creator the Swimmer’s Shoulder System.
Dr. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS world-renowned physical therapist and strength coach.
  1. April 13, 2012

    Interesting stuff.  Definitely an area ruled more by hunch than evidence.  

    How tight is the link between soreness and performance?  Presumably one can be sore yet still near full capacity (and lack of soreness isn’t an indication of recovery)?

  2. April 13, 2012

    Great point, I am not familiar with any such research (at least on the top of my head)

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