It has been a long-established idea within sports science that it was practical, following intense workouts, to use ice baths to reduce inflammation. However, a study was released in the Journal of Physiology that suggested this tactic could backfire: without the inflammation to indicate to your muscles that they need to repair and strengthen, ice baths could actually impede your fitness progress.
Another major study was published on this topic - this one, led by Queensland University of Technology researchers in Australia, found that ice baths are ineffective at combating inflammation.
The most recent study is particularly interesting since, at a glance, it seems to say that ice baths do not serve the desired function. To determine whether incorporating post-workout ice baths to reduce inflammation actually works, the researchers recruited nine men to alternate performing resistance exercises followed by 10 minutes of mild cycling or an ice bath. They collected measurements two, 24, and 48 hours following the exercise.
The workouts raised inflammatory signs within the cells, as the scientists expected. However, the inflammatory markers following 10 minutes of an ice bath or gentle cycling were essentially the same. The researchers concluded that their results showed “cold water immersion is no more effective than active recovery for reducing inflammation or cellular stress in muscle after a bout of resistance exercise.”
Should you use ice baths to reduce inflammation?
Based on these two studies, it seems that using ice baths to reduce inflammation is a questionable practice at best. However, keep in mind that demonstrating ice baths do not decrease inflammation does not prove that they are generally ineffective. The same Queensland research team found that blood flow is influenced by an ice bath. Another study found that cold water diminishes the swelling that occurs because of edema (swelling from fluid in your body's tissues). Plus, other research has shown that ice baths improve muscle recovery speed and limit the amount of soreness that is experienced.
The results simply reveal that inflammation reduction is not what is being achieved by ice baths. It could instead be the impact on blood flow that is what makes the ice bath an effective tactic.
The basic idea, according to the science that is emerging, is that ice baths are not achieving what many people think they are. It is probably not a good idea to use ice baths all the time – since they can get in the way of the muscular adaptation that you want. You could use them periodically, in order to speed up recovery and improve circulation; you cannot, however (so it now seems), use ice baths to reduce inflammation.
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