Contrast Bath Therapy: The Hot and Cold of It

Contrast Bath Therapy: The Hot and Cold of It

Exercise is our friend. Who doesn't love that exhilarating, I-can-conquer-the-world feeling that washes through your body after a satisfying workout? Unfortunately, it eventually gives way to sore, tired, possibly swollen, or inflamed muscles and joints. You may have suffered a mild sprain or twisted a joint in a direction it wasn't designed to go.

Now you're not so sure about that conquer-the-world thing.

No pain, no gain, as they say. That doesn't mean you have to keep the pain to benefit from the gain. Before you give in to the siren call of your inner couch potato, consider contrast bath therapy to ease your post-workout discomfort. 

What Is Contrast Bath Therapy?

Anyone who is physically active on a regular basis knows the drill when it comes to ice packs and heating pads. These post-exercise recovery tools are especially familiar to serious athletes and bodybuilders. Contrast bath therapy takes this same principle to a whole new level.

When you do a contrast bath, a part of or all of your body is first immersed in hot water. You then follow this with ice water. This alternating of hot and cold is repeated multiple times.

Contrast bath is a type of whirlpool treatment used by physical therapists to aid in reducing pain and muscle spasms, increase range of motion, improve strength, and increase functional mobility in the affected area of your body. 

How Does a Contrast Bath Work?

There are two basic universal physical laws in effect during a hot and cold contrast bath: heat expands and cold contracts. A contrast bath makes use of this scientific fact. Heat acts as a vasodilator, meaning it expands the blood vessels to bring oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the surface. 

The cold acts as a vasoconstrictor, meaning it contracts the blood vessels to send the blood back to the body's core. The heat helps relax sore, aching, tight muscles while cold reduces pain and inhibits inflammation. 

Methods to Suit Your Needs

The concept of contrast bath therapy has been around for centuries. It has long been a "go-to" treatment for common muscle and joint pain and has been a favorite practice among athletes for relief of sore or painful muscles, strains, swelling, stiffness in the joints, inflammation in soft tissues, muscle spasms, and to speed recovery after injuries. 

Treatment with hot and cold water in contrast therapy isn't a one-size-fits-all remedy. There are different methods that can be tailored to your specific injury or condition. Here are a few examples:

  • Ice packs and heating pads. These are time-honored external methods of delivering cold or heat therapy, or an alternating combination of the two, to the body's surface. The method you utilize should be targeted to the specific discomfort or injury you wish to treat. For example, an ice pack is effective in relieving symptoms of strains, sprains, bruises, and tendinitis. Heating pads are an effective method for treating muscle-oriented pain, such as discomfort from over-exertion, muscle cramps, and spasms. Heat is a popular remedy for pain in the neck and back.
  • Cryotherapy and sauna. These two forms of contrast therapy penetrate the surface to a deeper degree than simple ice packs and heating pads. The term 'cryotherapy' means 'cold therapy.' This is the "cold" half of contrast bath treatments. It can include ice packs, ice massage, coolant sprays, whirlpools, or ice baths. The contrasting side that provides heat include saunas and steam baths. In a sauna, you sit in a room filled with warm, moisture-filled air. This triggers your body to sweat, thus releasing toxins and burning calories. Time in a sauna relaxes muscles and improves skin quality. Steam baths are similar, usually employing higher humidity levels and greater variations in temperatures. 
  • Whole-body contrasting bath therapy. Contrast bath therapy is water-based therapy that involves immersing your body in water and repeatedly switching between cold water and hot water treatments. It's sometimes referred to as immersion therapy and is a popular way to speed recovery times in injured athletes. Immersive whole body contrasting baths rapidly open your blood vessels with the hot water and then quickly constrict them when you switch to cold water. This creates a pump-like action in your circulatory system that can reduce swelling and inflammation to an injured area and speed recovery times for your whole body after intense workouts. 

Unsure of which method is best for you? Check with your healthcare provider or physical therapist for help in deciding.

In the Comfort of Your Own Home

If you're a do-it-yourself kind of person and prefer to take care of your minor aches and pains at home, there are several ways you can go about this. Keep in mind that it's always better to dunk and soak a bit when you can, rather than use a flow or spray. This is especially significant when you want to surround a specific body part in a hot and cold environment.    

Here are some of the basics you'll need for your contrast therapy at home:

  • Immersion: sink, bucket, or tub. If you're going for full-body immersion, you'll definitely need a tub.     
  • Surface only: ice packs, heating pads, towels soaked in water.
  • Spraying or pouring: immersion in the water stream from a faucet, water poured from a container, or sprayed through a showerhead or hose.    

The basic pattern for contrasting should be three to six alterations between heating and cooling.  

  • Heat at a comfortably hot temperature for about two minutes
  • Cool, but not cold, for about one minute
  • Heat again, hotter than previously, for about two minutes
  • Back to cold, lower temperature than before, for one minute
  • Heat as hot as you can handle for about two minutes
  • Cold as chilling as you can handle for about one minute    

Doing a contrast bath is pretty straightforward, but there are a few tricks that may increase the effectiveness of the therapy.

  • Stay hydrated
  • When using ice packs or wraps, protect your skin with a thin cloth between the cold pack and your skin
  • Increase the intensity (the hot or cold) in increments if you can tolerate it. Place a limit on how hot or how cold you'll go, such as no hotter than 110 degrees and no colder than 60 degrees
  • If you need to stretch your muscles, do it during the heat stage
  • Always finish with a cold stage

As always, run your plans for contrast bath therapy past your personal healthcare provider before starting.

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