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Cold plunge tubs are very simple in concept. They rely on a theory called cold water immersion, which goes back to the Egyptians in the year 3500 BC. By submerging your body in ice-cold water, your system is shocked into producing several recovery benefits. But what does cold water do for you, and how effective is it?
What Do Cold Plunge Tubs Benefit?
Besides being the fastest way to wake up in the morning, cold water immersion has been shown to provide numerous health benefits. Used by professional athletes, personal trainers, and physical therapists, this icy shock to the system has been shown to increase submaximal muscle recovery following resistance exercises. This opens up possibilities for a non-chemical pain reliever for athletes and non-athletes alike. For those of us who are less inclined toward resistance exercise, some studies indicate that cold water may play a role in relieving pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or other age-related conditions. But the physical benefits are only the start. Anecdotal evidence suggests that extended exposure to these freezing temperatures may help elevate individuals’ moods, potentially even serving as a treatment for depression.
How Does It Work?
The concept behind cold plunge tubs is simple. Cold water causes blood vessels to constrict, which leads to increased circulation, which allows for more oxygenation of various parts of the body. So when it comes to physical relief, muscles, joints, or other areas of inflammation are receiving more oxygen than they would outside the cold water. This is similar in theory to icing an injury to relieve discomfort. The cold water reduces swelling and pulls the blood to the pain area in an attempt to recover additional heat. In terms of the emotional benefits, yes, increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain can elevate your mood. However, most of the data is anecdotal at this point, and it is recommended that more studies be conducted to determine how effective cold water immersion is for elevating moods.
Easy Ways to Get Started
Cryotherapy is complex and can be expensive, but it is easy enough to get started with cold water immersion. The easiest way is to take cold showers, especially following a hard workout. If you have access to a pool or any cold body of water, this may also be achieved by taking a short swim instead. This may also benefit your circulation by serving as a cool-down. If neither of these sounds appealing, but you have access to a bathtub, all you need is some ice, water, and a little bit of courage to take the plunge into the cold. The benefits may become quickly apparent, even if the initial plunge doesn’t feel so comfortable.
Items to Consider
- Adler, A. J. (1992). Water Immersion: Lessons from Antiquity to Modern Times. Contributions to Nephrology, 171–186. https://doi.org/10.1159/000421923
- Roberts, L. A., Nosaka, K., Coombes, J. S., & Peake, J. M. (2014). Cold water immersion enhances recovery of submaximal muscle function after resistance exercise. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative, and Comparative Physiology, 307(8), R998–R1008. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00180.2014
- Washington, L. L., Gibson, S. J., & Helme, R. D. (2000). Age-related differences in the endogenous analgesic response to repeated cold water immersion in human volunteers. Pain, 89(1), 89–96. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0304-3959(00)00352-3
- Kelly, J. S., & Bird, E. (2021). Improved mood following a single immersion in cold water. Lifestyle Medicine, 3(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/lim2.53
- Yankouskaya, A., Williamson, R., Stacey, C., Totman, J. J., & Massey, H. (2023). Short-Term Head-Out Whole-Body Cold-Water Immersion Facilitates Positive Affect and Increases Interaction between Large-Scale Brain Networks. Biology, 12(2), 211. https://doi.org/10.3390/biology12020211
- Shadgan B, Pakravan AH, Hoens A, Reid WD. Contrast Baths, Intramuscular Hemodynamics, and Oxygenation as Monitored by Near-Infrared Spectroscopy. J Athl Train. 2018 Aug;53(8):782-787. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-127-17. Epub 2018 Sep 13. PMID: 30212235; PMCID: PMC6188085.
- Duschek, S., Hadjamu, M., & Schandry, R. (2007). Enhancement of cerebral blood flow and cognitive performance following pharmacological blood pressure elevation in chronic hypotension. Psychophysiology, 44(1). https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8986.2006.00472.x