Athletes have long believed that ice baths are a remedy for soreness and inflammation after strenuous exercise. Although cryotherapy, as scientists call it, can be painful and time-consuming, it is very popular with both professional and amateur athletes. However, they may just be subjecting themselves to unnecessary distress because ice baths do not seem to be an effective way of reducing inflammation and accelerating recovery.
This was established by researchers from the University of New Hampshire, who carried out their study with the help of 20 recreationally active men of college age who were asked to run downhill for 40 minutes. Half of them then spent 20 minutes in cold water reaching up to their thighs. The water was chilled to five degrees Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit).
The objective of lead researcher Naomi Crystal was to determine the effect of cryotherapy on soreness, strength, swelling and inflammation. The team took three post-run measures at intervals ranging from one to 72 hours, covering perceived soreness, quadriceps strength and thigh circumference. They also took blood samples to measure the concentration of inflammation marker plasma chemokine ligand 2 (CCL2). The results of the analysis showed no difference between the two groups except in CCL2 concentrations, which tended to be lower in the cryotherapy group. However, there was great variation in those results and they are not deemed statistically significant.
The research indicates that ice baths are not an effective recovery tool but Crystal´s personal opinion is that they may work in some cases. She suggests that such a regimen be used sparingly, for example during tournaments or in the case of athletes who have done something extraordinary. However, she recommends against using this kind of therapy on a regular basis.