Compared to their peers who soaked in warmer water
or didn't soak at all, amateur athletes recruited from the
University of Ulster in Northern Ireland reported a 2-point
difference on a 10-point muscle pain scale after repeated soaks in
6°C (43°F) water.
That 20 percent reduction in pain — from around 3 points to around 1 — might have an impact on elite athletes who strive for the
slightest incremental improvements in performance, said lead study
author Chris Bleakley, but perhaps not for amateur exercisers.
"If they are not playing at a high level, then I let them know it's
not going to make a huge impact," said Bleakley, a researcher and
physical therapist at Ulster Sports Academy, where the study took
The idea that soaking in ice water can hasten the recovery of
muscles made sore by a heavy workout is popular, especially in the
sports world. But how much difference it makes, as well as the
safety of repeated cold soaks, are still debated (see Reuters Health
article of Feb. 12, 2012, here: http://reut.rs/LYmX3b).
For the study, 50 students ranging in age from 18 to 35 years old
induced sore muscles by using the heaviest weight possible on a
standing hamstring curl machine. They did this for five days in a
row, and on the first three days a treatment was administered after
the exercise session.
The participants were divided into five groups, four of which got
variations on cold-water soaking therapy, and the fifth just had a
seated rest period after their workout.
One of the therapy groups did hot/cold soaks, with a minute in 100°F
water, followed by a minute in 50°F water. The second group did a
cold/air soak, with a minute in 50°F water, followed by a minute
outside the tub. A third group soaked their legs for 10 minutes in
50°F water, and a fourth group did the same in 43°F water.
The researchers wanted to know which time and temperature dosages
worked best. But Bleakley and his team didn't find any significant
differences among all the groups in athletes' before and after
scores for range of motion and muscle strength.
Only the group that had the 10-minute, 43°F soak reported noticeably
less muscle soreness compared to the seated rest group.
Pain in all groups peaked 48 hours after the first workout session,
but on that day the seated-rest group rated their soreness, on
average, at 3.39 on the scale of 10 while the group that soaked 10
minutes at 43°F rated their pain at 1.35 out of 10. The other
groups' pain ratings ranged between 2.77 and 3.4.
Determining how to effectively apply cold water immersion therapy
"is certainly a basic question that needs to be answered in our
field," said exercise physiologist Gillian White.
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White, a doctoral student at The University of Toronto in Canada,
was not involved in the study.
"My experience with cold water immersion is that athletes like
it," she told Reuters Health.
Writing in the journal Physical Therapy in Sports, Bleakley and his
team point to past studies for explanations of why ice soaks might
soothe sore muscles. For example, ice water might reduce muscle
inflammation, stimulate blood flow, make muscles feel less fatigued
or it just might bring temporary relief by numbing the area.
Based on this study, "we still don't know really how cold water
immersion might be working, or if it is," White said.
"But before anyone worries about which soreness approach they should
use, they need to make sure they are getting enough sleep at night,
eating good food during the day and sticking to a sensible training
schedule," Bleakley said.
As an alternative muscle soreness treatment, Bleakley said
compression skins might work.
"It's important to recognize there is not one cure-all," Bleakey
said. "Athlete preference is important and most recovery methods
require a holistic approach."
Massage therapy continues to be a good option for all levels of
athletes looking to ease muscle soreness, White said. She pointed
out that past studies have found strong links between massage and
muscle soreness relief.
"Fluid buildup happens in the muscles, which is part of the reason
muscles feel sore," White said.
"Massage helps move that fluid out of the muscles and back into the
bloodstream," she said.
"I think a lot a lot of athletes already know that massage works,"
Therapy in Sports, online Jan. 29, 2014.
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