It’s hard to feel like your best self when nursing a pain, whether the pain you’re dealing with is from an injury or due to chronic aches and soreness. And if you’re someone who doesn’t want to rely exclusively on medication for pain management, figuring out which holistic healing solutions to add to your toolkit can feel a little overwhelming. There’s no shortage of snake oil products out there. How can you tell which options for natural, chemical-free pain relief are worth trying?
For centuries, people have turned to something incredibly simple to help with pain: cold water. Cold water therapy, sometimes called therapeutic hypothermia, has been practiced in different forms for more than 5,000 years. The earliest recorded mention we have of it today is from a medical treatise that dates back to 3,500 B.C. and outlines treatments for injuries. Later on, the healing power of “holy springs” — where those who’d made the pilgrimage would take a cold plunge in icy spring water — segued into the popularity of spa towns.
But beyond its historical roots, what proven benefits does cold water therapy offer folks today? Below, we walk through a few reasons why it’s commonly turned to, as well as some ways you can incorporate this therapy into your life today.
What is cold water therapy?
Cold water therapy is the practice of immersing oneself in water that’s at or under 59°F as a treatment tool for a number of health conditions, including body pains. Ice baths, cold showers, and open-water outdoor swims are all common ways to experience the benefits of a cold plunge. Oftentimes, athletes will use cold water therapy following an intense workout to help speed up muscle recovery and reduce discomfort and soreness.
Benefits of cold water therapy for pain
Taking a dip in icy water can help not only with managing existing symptoms of pain but also with the body’s healing process, which may in turn help alleviate future pains. There are a few reasons why in particular it’s been shown to help.
It reduces inflammation.
Because cold water restricts blood vessels and lowers your muscle tissues’ temperature, it’s been shown to help combat inflammation. When blood flow is localized, less swelling in damaged areas happens — which is why we put ice on injuries. Less inflammation also means you’re less likely to have delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after a workout or other physical activity, making this a proactive form of care, too.
It helps with joint pain.
Cold water therapy has been shown to help with joint pain in part because of its role in reducing inflammation, swelling, and stiffness. Oftentimes, hot and cold therapy are prescribed by doctors and physical therapists in tandem, since being immersed in heat — as while in a sauna — and following that with cold water immersion is beneficial for everything from everyday joint pains to arthritis flare-ups. The numbing effect of cold water can offer immediate pain relief, too.
It’s good for your lymphatic system.
While this one has a slightly less direct connection to pain, cold water therapy is great for your body’s lymphatic system. That’s because cold water makes your lymph vessels contract, which then forces your lymphatic system to pump out excess fluids, toxins, and metabolic waste. That’s good for your immune system. And having a strong immune system means your body has a leg up for recovering from muscle strains, aches, and injuries.
How to incorporate cold water therapy into your life.
If you’re considering trying out cold water therapy, it’s best to consult a doctor beforehand or to initially do it in a supervised setting. For folks with certain health conditions, like circulation issues or heart problems, cold water therapy can be dangerous — so it’s best to use caution and do your research. Once you’ve determined that cold water therapy can be safely tested out, there are a number of ways to go about it.
Take a cold shower.
This is certainly the simplest way to try out cold water therapy for yourself, and it’s also something you can ease into. Start off by taking a hot shower and slowly decrease the temperature until it's on your shower’s coldest setting. Research shows that even a 30-second blast of cold water at the end of a hot shower offers health benefits.
Do an at-home ice bath.
Fill your tub halfway with cold water, then add ice. It’s best to keep a thermometer on hand for this if possible, especially if you’re planning to fully submerge yourself. Research typically shows the range for effective cold water immersion to be between 47 and 59°F, and you’ll want to keep your dip to 15 minutes or less.
Go for a dip outdoors.
This, of course, is going to be seasonally and geographically dependent. But a “polar plunge” can be easily done everywhere from spring-fed streams to lakes, oceans and unheated swimming pools. Just be sure to get a sense of exactly how polar your plunge will be before fully submerging yourself. There is such a thing as too cold!
Take a cold plunge at your local sauna.
Here at Sauna House, our blend of hot-cold-relax therapies includes 53°F cold plunges as well as cold showers. We recommend moving from one of our saunas straight to your cold plunge, so that you can take in the full benefits of sequential hot and cold therapies. Be sure to bring a swimsuit, and once you’re done, congratulate yourself with time spent lounging on our bath house’s heated benches.
Ready to get started?
If you’re curious about how cold therapy could help you manage pain and alleviate soreness, we’re here to answer any of your questions here at Sauna House. Give us a call, and drop by for a visit!