Will Ice Baths Help First Responders with Stress?

You might have seen professional athletes hop in an ice bath after a game or long practice. Or maybe you know a fitness buff or celebrity who swears by ice baths for post-workout recovery. Cold-water plunges are a form of cryotherapy, which involves using cold to treat various issues. Although the technique has become popular again in recent years, it's nothing new. People have used cold-water immersion for health and wellness for centuries.

Hopping into an icy bath might not seem appealing to everyone. But the practice may support your physical and mental health which is why we are starting to see them emerge around some firehouses.  Some firefighters find that they sleep better and feel more relaxed and refreshed following a cold bath session.   That said, don't jump into a cold bath looking for a cure-all. Much of the research on the benefits of ice baths is mixed and still new.  

There is some promise however, a recent systematic review published in the journal Sports Medicine in February 2022 suggested that cold water immersion was an effective recovery tool after high-intensity exercise.  In the study, people who used ice baths after high-intensity exercise reported feeling better, increased muscular power, and were less sore.  Whether this would be the same following a long fire/rescue or shift at the firehouse has yet to be proven.  


What are the potential benefits of taking ice baths? 

Reduces inflammation and swelling. The act of submerging oneself in an ice bath leads to the constriction of blood vessels, resulting in a reduction of blood flow to the muscles. This decrease in circulation has the potential to alleviate inflammation and swelling, making it particularly beneficial for individuals with inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Cold water immersion may prove helpful in diminishing discomfort and swelling during flare-ups or after intense physical activity. Moreover, this therapeutic effect can be attributed to a decline in cortisol levels, which makes it an intriguing prospect for first responders who constantly experience inflammation due to extended shifts and inadequate sleep. Although research shows promise, further investigation is necessary to fully comprehend this advantageous aspect.

ice bath, first responder, inflammation

Relieves Sore Muscles. Taking a dip in a chilly bath has been known to provide relief for achy muscles. The exact mechanism behind this phenomenon remains a mystery to scientists, although it is believed that reduced inflammation and slower nerve signals contribute to a decrease in pain. Additionally, the perception of discomfort or soreness may be diminished by exposure to cold water. This explains why a comprehensive analysis discovered that ice baths effectively alleviate delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) following physical activity. 

Personally, I find that my muscles feel more recovered the day after an ice bath.  There still needs to be more studies conducted to discover the best duration, temperature, and timing of the bath to get the most benefit for sore muscle relief. 

Aids exercise recovery.  Cold baths can play a role in aiding exercise recovery. Upon emerging from a frigid bath, your blood vessels undergo dilation, resulting in enhanced circulation throughout your body. As a result, the influx of nutrient-dense blood to your muscles aids in the expulsion of metabolic waste that accumulates during physical exertion. This explains why many individuals opt for cold baths as part of their post-workout recovery routine. Moreover, scientific research supports the efficacy of cold baths as an effective method for recuperation after exercise.

firefighter ice bath after a shift can help with health

They may help you relax and sleep better. Delving into frigid waters after an intense workout not only offers relaxation but also has the potential to enhance sleep quality.  After enduring scorching temperatures and being drenched in perspiration, immersing oneself in an ice bath can leave one feeling revitalized. Researchers and users state that subjecting your body to cold water elicits a stress reaction and stimulates the nervous system, which can lead to an uplifted and relaxed mood and heightened resilience against long-term stress.

Supports immunity. - Some evidence suggests that ice baths support a healthy immune system. In a small study, people who combined cold water immersion, deep breathing, and meditation had fewer bacterial infection symptoms than those who did not. But it's difficult to know just how effective cold water immersion is for your immune system because the study looks at several methods. 

Take the plunge

There are no standard guidelines for how to make an ice bath. So most information –– on the best water temperature, how long to sit in an ice bath, and how often to take one –– comes from research and firsthand accounts.

 You have plenty of options if you decide to try ice baths. You can go to a gym or spa or buy an at-home ice bath with a temperature control system. But a fancy ice bath isn't a must. 

cold bath or shower

You can also use your bathtub. All you need is some ice cubes, a thermometer, and a timer. To make an ice bath at home: Run cold tap water, and put your thermometer in the tub. Gradually add ice cubes to the tepid water. Remember to wear comfortable clothes like a T-shirt and shorts before getting into the tub. Try to get the temperature of the water between 50 to 59°F. 

Some ice bath enthusiasts suggest that you slowly build up to cold-water exposure. For example, you can gradually lower the temperature of your ice baths until you reach a point that works for you. Or you can ease into ice baths by starting with your lower body before working your way up to full-body soaks.  This way, the icy water isn't as shocking to your system.

As far as how long to stay in the bath.  Take it slow: Start with 30 seconds of cold water. Work up to a minute and progress until you get to around 5-10 minutes.  

temperature of ice bath for firefighters

For those considering trying ice baths, it's crucial to approach them with caution and follow safety guidelines. Gradual exposure and seeking advice from a healthcare professional or sports medicine specialist can be beneficial, especially for individuals with underlying health conditions.

Always listen to your body and pay attention to how you feel during and after the ice bath. If you experience any adverse reactions or discomfort, it's essential to discontinue the practice and seek appropriate medical advice.

As with any wellness practice, the key is to find what works best for you and to incorporate ice baths or other recovery methods into a well-rounded and balanced approach to physical activity and nutrition.

Stay safe, stay consistent, and stay FRF,

Aaron Zamzow

Please reach out with any questions or personal experiences that can help others.  


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