How do Ice Baths work?
Ice For Your Muscles
The notion that applying ice to a muscular injury can help relieve pain and swelling, as well as helping the body to heal itself, has been famous for decades, and even forms part of the taught response to muscular injuries in the mnemonic RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). But how does this work?
When Ice is applied in small packs to affected areas of the body, blood circulation to this field is slowed, stopping the growth factors that cause swelling travelling to the injury and reducing pain by cooling the heat generated and temporarily causing the pain receptor nerves to stop working correctly. After 10-20 minutes the ice pack should be removed, and the blood will rush back to the injured area, bringing with it the growth factors and lymphatic fluids that repair muscles in abundance. This rush increases the muscle’s exposure to the healing process and aids rapid recovery, as well as flushing away the lactic acid surrounding your tired muscles.
Similarly, when you enter an ice bath, you are reducing blood flow and nerve function in a substantial portion of your body. This numbs your body for pain relief and stops swelling in its tracks after you’ve undertaken the strenuous and prolonged activity. When you remove yourself from the ice bath, the blood flow resumes at a quickened pace, carrying around the vital natural healing fluids and exposing them to areas in need.
Do They Work?
However, in recent years many experts have questioned the effectiveness of ice baths after heavy activity. After all, they weren’t widely popular before 2002 when marathon runner Paula Radcliffe and her trainer expounded on the virtues of ice baths, with Radcliffe even taking one before her marathons. They have been known to happen well before that, of course, with many baffled Americans watching as Russian Professor Louis Sugarman took an icy dip every day in the 1890s, earning him the nickname ‘The Human Polar Bear’. However, occurrences like this were considered unusual until recently.
Some experts speculate that the baths work through a placebo effect, where the benefits are psychological rather than physical. If you expect to experience a reduction in pain after an ice bath, you are likely to think you have noticed a difference. If this is the case, it probably isn’t a terrible thing unless there is damage that is affecting your performance that isn’t being addressed. If you don’t see long-term improvements and benefits from ice baths, consult a doctor or physiotherapist before continuing your training and ice bath regime.