What Do Ice Baths Do
Ice baths have been used in sports medicine for decades, but they’ve recently become even more popular as part of cancer treatment regimens. In this article, we’ll explain what an ice bath is — how it works — and why people use them.
An ice bath is nothing more than an immersion in icy water. A person who takes an ice bath may stay submerged for up to 45 minutes or longer. Typically, an ice bath is administered by placing the patient into a tub filled with an inch (2.5 centimeters) of very cold water. Some centers also use bags of ice placed around the edge of the tub to provide extra resistance. Generally, a temperature between 38 degrees F (-3 degrees C) and 40 degrees F (-4.4 degrees C) is considered ideal for patients undergoing chemotherapy [source American Cancer Society]. Patients are asked not to drink fluids during their ice bath; instead, they’re encouraged to remain hydrated only through oral rehydration solution (ORS). ORS solutions contain salts and sugar to help replace lost liquids and maintain fluid balance while in the bath. Water temperatures below 20 degrees F (-6.6 degrees C) should never be used because they could cause hypothermia.
There’s no scientific evidence proving exactly how an ice bath helps reduce pain and inflammation caused by conditions like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or bursitis. However, there is some evidence suggesting that the ice bath might work by reducing inflammation. In one study, researchers found that after immersing rats’ knees in an ice bath, levels of interleukin-1 beta (a chemical associated with inflammatory response), dropped by 90 percent within 30 seconds of being placed in the bath. Other studies suggest that an ice bath reduces swelling and lowers muscle soreness. But since there isn’t any hard science behind these claims, you shouldn’t rely on ice baths alone to relieve your symptoms. Instead, talk to your doctor about whether an ice bath would benefit you specifically.
So should you take an ice bath if you want relief from arthritis? Read on to find out.
Benefits of Ice Bathing
People typically take ice baths to treat injuries, such as broken bones, sprains and strains. Most ice baths are designed to provide temporary relief from pain and stiffness until medical attention can be sought. For example, someone experiencing severe back pain following surgery may decide to take an ice bath to ease his discomfort until he can see his physician again. People often choose to take an ice bath when recovery time is expected to exceed 48 hours due to the prolonged period of reduced mobility. An ice bath can also be helpful for relieving muscle aches due to strenuous exercise. If you haven’t exercised in several days and experience sharp pains in certain muscles, an ice bath might help sooth those areas until you can resume exercising.
However, most doctors recommend against taking an ice bath for long periods of time without first consulting a trained professional. This is especially true for people suffering from cardiovascular problems, diabetes, low blood pressure or kidney disease. Those at risk include infants, children and pregnant women. Additionally, anyone who has experienced a stroke or heart attack should consult a cardiologist before attempting an ice bath.
In general, an ice bath provides only short-term benefits. While it does decrease pain and inflammation, it doesn’t address the underlying causes of these conditions. It also won’t speed the healing process. Still, many people swear by ice baths because they don’t require much preparation or effort. To learn where you can get started, read on.
If you regularly take an ice bath, you probably already know that ice packs aren’t always effective. One reason is that ice is slippery, which means that you need a good grip to keep your hand firmly planted on top of the pack. Another problem is that ice melts over time, which means that ice packs lose effectiveness after repeatedly using them. That’s why it’s recommended that you change out each ice pack every hour or two. Also, try to avoid going directly from hot to cold. You should allow yourself plenty of time to adjust to the new environment. Finally, remember that ice baths are meant to constrict blood vessels, which means you shouldn’t go deep enough to reach any arteries. If you do, you run the risk of having blood pool too close to your skin, which could result in dangerous drops in blood pressure.
How to Take an Ice Bath
Before you jump into the ice bath, make sure you have everything you need. Ideally, you should bring along your own towel, washcloth, disposable ice packs, drinking water and personal lubricant. Before getting into the bathtub, pour some warm water into the sink to prepare the space. Then turn off all lights except for a small lamp near the tub. Next, place a chair next to the sink and put down whatever supplies you plan to use in the bath. After ensuring that your bathroom light will illuminate the entire room, open the window blinds to let the sun’s rays flood the room. Now, set the timer on your clock radio to give you roughly 15 minutes to immerse yourself in the ice bath.
Next, fill the tub with ice cubes and water. Make sure to leave enough room for you to sit comfortably in the tub. Place a bag of frozen peas or corn on the floor of the tub to act as additional padding under your butt. Avoid sitting directly on top of the peas or corn because they’ll melt and float away. Once you’ve added enough water to cover the bottom of the tub, add more ice cubes to increase the size of the bath. Continue adding ice until the water reaches your desired depth. If you’re planning to stay in the tub for longer than 15 minutes, you can replenish the amount of ice in the tub once every half-hour or so.
Once you’re ready to dive in, slowly lower yourself into the water. When you’re seated, hold onto something firm, like a countertop or the side of the tub, to prevent yourself from floating away. Use the other end of the rope to pull yourself down deeper into the water. Don’t worry about splashing water everywhere — it happens. Just relax and soak!
After roughly 10 minutes, remove yourself from the tub and dry yourself thoroughly with a clean towel. Change into fresh clothes and return home. By now, the ice bath should have lowered your body temperature considerably. Your skin should feel cool and tingly — that’s a sign that your circulation is improving. Give yourself another rest period and repeat the procedure later, perhaps after eating a snack. As a rule, follow your ice bath regimen daily until your condition improves. During this time, you may notice less joint pain and improved range of motion.
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