This site is intended for health professionals only

Ice baths may be a 'threat to people's health'

Athletes who plunge themselves into icy water following intense exercise may be putting their health in danger, research shows.

Scientists at the University of Portsmouth found cold water immersion was “no more and no less effective” in helping athletes recover from sport than “light” cool-down exercises.

The study, published in the European Journal of Sports Science, warns the practice may actually do more harm than good.

“Ice baths are frequently used by sportsmen and women to help them recover after exercise but our results show they don't work. They also pose a number of potentially serious health risks,” said lead author Dr Jo Corbett.

“If people using ice baths are receiving no real benefit then they should be probably be advised to stop using them.”

It has previously been claimed that cold water helps to reduce inflammation, swelling, and muscle spasms and pain, meaning an athlete can perform again at high level “more quickly”.

Dr Corbett attributes the rise in popularity of cold water immersion largely due to high profile sportspeople such as mararthon runner Paula Radcliffe and the England rugby team advocating the practice.

Scientists tested 40 male athletes after 90 minutes of intermittent shuttle running.

After running, the men were divided into groups with 10 standing in cold water for 12 minutes; 10 standing in warm water for the same period; 10 sitting in cold water for two minutes; and ten walking slowly for 12 minutes.

Muscle performance was measured before exercise and afterwards at intervals ranging from 12 hours to five days.

No differences were found between any of the groups in terms of the athletes' perception of pain or in their biochemical markers of muscle cell damage.

Dr Corbett said the research is “increasingly pointing towards cold water immersion as posing a possible threat to people's health”.