It may be second nature at this point to ice an injury, and there's a good reason for this!
Cooling down your body can be incredibly beneficial. Cold therapy takes this basic principle, and expands it to your whole body for multiple treatment purposes – not just sprained ankles!
There’s a lot left to learn about cold therapy, so we’ll give you the rundown in this guide, from what it is, how it works, different types of cold therapy, and much more.
Ready to dive in? Let’s take the plunge!
What Is Cold Therapy?
Cold therapy is simply exposing your body to cold temperatures. Versions of cold therapy have been in practice for a long time, and have many different physical and mental health benefits.
Many people use cold therapy for its reported ability to reduce pain, inflammation, muscle tension, and soreness – especially after strenuous exercise.
If you have heart disease or another cardiovascular condition, consult with your doctor before using any cold therapy.
How Cold Therapy Works
When your body is exposed to cold water temperatures, your blood vessels constrict and blood flow moves out of your limbs and toward your core. This helps to reduce inflammation and swelling.
When the cold is removed, fresh blood rushes back to your extremities from your heart.
Additionally, cold exposure floods your nerves with the sensation of temperature. Limiting nerve activity will also help to limit nerve damage. This means it limits the transmission of pain signals, which helps lead to pain relief.
Cold exposure also impacts several other regions of the body, including hormone regulation changes and even metabolic effects.
What Are the Different Types of Cold Therapy?
There are a number of different cold therapy approaches to pain management. The body can be exposed to cold temperatures through methods such as cold showers, cryotherapy, ice packs or compresses, and cold plunges.
Each type of cold therapy has its own unique uses and benefits for different health conditions. It's important to understand the proper temperature and duration for each method in order to maximize its effectiveness.
The most common type of cold water therapy methods, cold plunges, involves submerging yourself in cold water.
A cold water plunge can be done in an ice bath or a large outside tub. You can also practice cold plunges if you have cold, clean bodies of water near you, like an alpine lake or even the sea.
Learn more about the benefits of ice baths.
If you’re not quite ready to take the plunge or don’t have a bathtub or lake on hand, cold showers are a great place to start!
It’s advised to lower the shower temperature to below 60 degrees and start with two to three-minute bursts of chilled water.
Cryotherapy can be used as a synonym for cold therapy, but it often refers to the most extreme type of cold exposure.
Whole-body cryotherapy involves entering a chamber that is brought down to as cold as negative 200 degrees through the use of liquid nitrogen. This exposure is typically done in two to four-minute bursts.
You’ve probably used a cold compress to treat an injury in the past. You can purchase them, but they’re always easy to make at home as well with cold objects.
Simply take a bag of ice (or even frozen items like veggies) and water, wrap it in a damp or dry washcloth to avoid direct skin contact, and hold it against the sore area.
Another localized form of cold therapy is coolant sprays. You apply the spray topically to the sore area, and it evaporates quickly off of the skin – bringing relief.
These are especially good if you have a condition that may flare up suddenly, or just to have on hand in a pinch.
Cold packs are also a very handy form of cold therapy. They're readily available and an over-the-counter product.
While cold gel packs are less malleable than cold compresses, you can get different shapes and sizes more easily to perfectly fit the area you’re treating. They’re also re-freezable.
Ice massage works well, especially for reducing inflammation.
You can apply it to yourself by taking an ice cube or ball and rubbing it in slow, circular motions with light pressure on the affected area.
Professional ice massages are also available for more serious or long-term treatment.
Heat and Cold Therapy
You can also alternate cold therapies with heat therapy for more potential health benefits and recovery. This could be localized to an injured area with acute pain, such as using both a cold compress and a heating pad.
Alternatively, it could be through full body immersion, such as adding some sauna sessions into your week as well as ice baths.
Be sure not to switch between full-body immersion therapies too quickly, as this can be dangerous. Also, avoid heating any already inflamed areas as that can make the pain worse.
Benefits of Cold Therapy
Cold therapy helps immensely in minimizing pain with swelling. Localized cold therapy is effective in reducing pain and swelling for acute injuries, such as a sprained ankle.
Full body cold therapy can be beneficial in managing chronic pain conditions, inflammatory issues, and injury recovery.
Alternating hot and cold therapy has been shown to bring relief to a range of conditions as well, such as rheumatoid arthritis pain or carpal tunnel syndrome.
The largest group of people that swear by cold therapy are athletes for recovery from exercise.
Following a workout, cold therapy helps muscles to recover quicker – leading to a more beneficial workout. It has been shown to reduce muscle soreness after exercising as well.
If you've ever done physical therapy and rehabilitation exercises, the physical therapist or trainer will always have you ice down afterwards for recovery.
Cold water therapy can even put you in a better mood!
People have reported greater feelings of happiness and contentment after cold water therapy, as well as a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety.
You can also use cold water therapy to “hack” your executive function system. This system enables you to do what you need to rather than feeling stuck or procrastinating.
For example, if the first thing you do in the morning is to jump in an icy shower, this “shows” your brain that even things you instinctively don’t feel like doing aren't so bad. This will make it easier to get things done the rest of the day.
Risks of Cold Therapy
As with anything, there are some risks associated with cold water therapy.
Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can cause hypothermia (in full body therapy), skin damage, and even frostbite (in localized treatment.). Always be sure to follow guidelines for exposure times.
Cold plunges, cryotherapy, and even cold showers shock your system. This can be hard on the body, especially the heart, even for healthy people.
Anyone with known or suspected heart conditions, circulatory issues, or nervous system dysregulation should talk to their doctor before trying cold therapy.
Cold therapy, particularly cold plunges, should also never be used if you have any open or healing wounds.
FAQs about Cold Therapy
1. Is Cold Therapy Good for Weight Loss?
There has been some evidence that cold therapy will help you lose weight. After all, as your body tries to heat you back up, it will need to burn calories to do so.
However, unless you are already at a calorie deficit due to exercise and a healthy diet, burning calories alone will not immediately lead to weight loss.
Cold therapy, in particular cold plunges, has also been demonstrated to change the way in which your body metabolizes fat. This makes it potentially easier to lose weight.
2. Is Cold Therapy Easy to Administer at Home?
Cold showers, localized cold therapies (compresses, coolant sprays, and ice packs), and heat and cold therapy are all relatively easy to do in the comfort of your own home.
Cold plunges are easy if you have a bath and plenty of ice, and ice massages can be applied to yourself at home if your pain is in an easy-to-reach area.
For harder areas or a more expert massage, you should go to a professional or get someone to give you a hand.
Cold plunges in nature you will likely have to travel a bit for. Cryotherapy requires specialized equipment, and often treatment comes at a cost unless you are referred medically.
3. What Temperature Is Ideal for Cold Therapy?
The temperature you should aim for varies by the type of cold therapy. The most common cold temperature ranges for the different methods are outlined in the table below:
50 - 59℉. Colder, varying temperatures can be used if you are experienced.
60℉. On a standard shower, as low as it goes is fine.
-200 to -300℉. This needs to be administered by a professional
Cold compresses/ice packs
37 to 39℉. This is just above freezing, with something between the ice and the skin to prevent damage.
32℉. Ice can be applied directly to the skin for short time periods as long as it is continuously moving.
Heat and Cold Therapy
50-59℉ for the cold portion and 95-113℉ for the heat exposure.
4. How Long Should You Stay Exposed to the Cold?
It’s important to monitor how long you use cold therapy to avoid frostbite and other cold-related injuries. Generally, you should limit exposure to cold temperatures to no more than 20 minutes at a time and as little as 30 seconds, with an additional 10 minutes of rest between each session. However, this may vary depending on the temperature and which body parts are being exposed.
Here are some of the most common cold therapy treatment times for maximum benefits:
15 minutes. Though it varies person to person. Always get out if you begin shivering.
2 to 3 minutes. You can start with as little as 30 seconds and work your way up.
2 to 4 minutes. Always have a knowledgeable professional running your sessions.
Cold compresses/ice packs
20 minutes. You can always take a break and then reapply if needed.
7 to 10 minutes.
Heat and Cold Therapy
20 minutes cold to 15 minutes hot.