Exercise helps to decrease risk of heart disease and obesity as well as a host of other health issues. However, you may have also experienced the downside of exercise, sore stiff muscles. Sometimes, particularly with new or specific types of exercises you will feel a delayed soreness, stiffness, and swelling in your muscles about 24-48 hours after exercise. This soreness often leads to a temporary lack of strength and power. It is believed to be due to small tears in the muscles that stimulate swelling. Since the soreness and stiffness is associated with swelling, many studies have focused on applying ice therapy to decrease swelling which may decrease future soreness.

The Cochrane Collaboration analyzed several studies that looked at approaches to relieving delayed muscle soreness. The study found that cold therapy was the most common approach and was associated with decreased delayed-onset muscle soreness.

About the Study

The systematic review assessed 17 previous randomized trials that examined cold-water immersion therapy immediately after exercise. 366 participants took part in a variety of exercises with different intensities and durations. The study participants were immersed in water at a temperature of < 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius). They were compared to participants who received no treatment, rest, or warm water therapies.

Cold-water immersion was associated with reduced muscle soreness when compared to rest or no intervention at

  • 24 hours after exercise in an analysis of 10 trial with 218 patients
  • 48 hours after exercise in an analysis of 8 trials with 179 patients
  • 72 hours after exercise in an analysis of 4 trials with 104 patients
  • 96 hours after exercise in an analysis of 5 trials with 97 patients

Cold-water immersion therapy was not associated with decreased muscle soreness when compared to warm-water immersion therapy > 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) or therapy alternating hot and cold therapy. The majority of trials did not look at complications that may happen due to cold immersion.

How Does This Affect You?

Systematic reviews can provide reliable outcomes since they often result in a large pool of participants. However, the quality of the trials involved and their compatibility can affect how reliable or true the results are. In this review, the studies were of good quality but there were several differences in important trial factors such as type of exercises completed, endurance, frequency and how long participants were in the cold bath. These variations may decrease or increase the size of benefits.

The cold baths followed here are in fact ice baths. While athletes may have grown accustomed to a brief ice bath, it may not be ideal for the average exerciser because of its intensity. If you are training for an intensive physical event and are limited because of delayed muscles soreness, you may want to consider some cold baths. Keep in mind that long periods in an ice cold baths are not wise either (the average time of immersion in studies was 12.6 minutes). Extended immersion in cold baths could lead to potential problems such as hypothermia or frostbite. If you have any health issues, you should talk to your doctor before attempting this type of bath. If you have regular soreness after your workout routine, you may also want to reassess your exercise program for its benefits and harms.