How contrast bath therapy works
Contrast bath therapy is becoming more widely appreciated for the numerous body and brain benefits. Alternating heat exposure with cold exposure can be achieved in many ways, and the simplicity of contrast therapy using water is one of the more popular methodologies.
Contrast bath therapy works by producing rapid changes in your circulatory system by transitioning between hot and cold water, always starting with hot and ending with cold water. Submerging part or all of your body in cold water induces small blood vessels called capillaries to respond by getting smaller, a process known as vasoconstriction.
Immersing yourself in warm water induces the opposite effects in the circulatory system. When exposed to extreme heat or even just warm water, the blood vessels open up. This physical process is known as vasodilation. Alternating hot and cold water temperatures also produce effects in heart rate. Studies show that cold water immersion induces the heart rate to speed up, while hot water causes heart rates to slow down.
Aside from the cardiovascular influences, what are the scientific evidence based effects about the effects of contrast bath therapy? This article will explore these effects along with their potential health benefits for the entire body.
What are the benefits of contrast bath therapy?
Fatigue reduction from contrast bathing
Many athletes report that contrast hydrotherapy helps them alleviate post-game and training fatigue. A 2017 meta-analysis of research studies on contrast bathing found that team sports players who implemented a routine of contrasting hot and cold baths helped the athletes to recover from fatigue in only 24-48 hours after their game or training session. Immersion in cold water alone didn’t provide the same active recovery benefits.
Contrast bathing reduces delayed onset muscle soreness severity
Intense training causes damage to your muscle fibers, and part of the physical recovery process afterward involves pain management when the body is healing damaged tissue. It's not uncommon for athletes to not feel sore until a day or so after their training. This effect is widely known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Researchers measured both the DOMS and muscle weakness effects in elite athletes that stemmed from strenuous workouts. They found that contrast bath therapy alleviated delayed onset muscle soreness and its associated weakness more effectively than passive resting alone did.
Be mindful of these two crucial factors of contrast hydrotherapy
First, researchers have discovered the best contrast hydrotherapy results occur when hot water temperatures are lower than 104°F (40°C), which is about the temperature a normal hot tub runs at. Keep in mind, this is for contrast hydrotherapy, which differs from contrast therapy, which leverages hot sauna use with a cold water immersion tub. (Hot saunas typically run around 180ºF.)
Second, immersion in cold water without exposure to hot water first is nearly as effective at relieving DOMS and training fatigue as contrast bath therapy is. This could mean that if you have to choose, a cold water immersion tub is the most beneficial piece of equipment to start with when getting into contrast hydrotherapy.
Flushes away excess lactic acid buildup in muscles
Vigorous exercise creates a build-up of lactic acid in the body. While lactic acid accumulation is normal, it still induces tired and sore muscles. The effects of lactic acid buildup can be curbed by resting, drinking water, taking magnesium supplements, and following a regular contrast hydrotherapy routine.
Two research studies conducted in 2007 found that contrast bath therapy helps decrease the amount of lactic acid in the body after working out, helping people recover from soreness and fatigue resulting from strenuous exercise far better than more passive interventions like resting alone.
Decreases swelling from muscle damage and overworked joints
When muscles and joints suffer injuries, part of the body’s response is to flood the injured area with a rush of fluids and white blood cells. The buildup of these fluids can create even greater pressure on the injury, resulting in painful swelling and joint stiffness.
Some evidence indicates regular contrast bath routines may help reduce swelling. In a 2016 study involving 115 people with ankle sprains, contrast hydrotherapy lessened swelling for participants at an average of only three days post-injury.
How to establish a contrast bath therapy routine
In the past, most folks have needed to access the benefits of contrast bath therapy by hiring the help of a physical therapist or athletic trainer. In these physical therapy or rehabilitation clinics, therapy sessions often involved whole-body immersion in different types of whirlpools or ice tubs.
Sometimes, these therapies only involved more targeted interventions, submerging only the injured body part. Also, therapists sometimes would instruct patients to perform gentle exercises while in the water. Though many people have benefitted from contrast therapy while supervised by a professional therapist, it’s possible to enjoy the same results within the comfort of your own home. That said, always check with your doctor first to make sure contrast bath therapy is safe for you.
What do you need to get started with contrast bath therapy at home?
- Two large containers or tubs that are big enough to enable you to submerge your entire body or at the very least, an injured body part
- A thermometer to constantly monitor the temperature of the water
- Towels to quickly dry off and warm back up
- Maintain a water temperature in the cold immersion tub between 50-59°F (10-15°C), and between 95-113°F (35-45°C) in the hot water contrast therapy tub.
In a meta-analysis study of contrast therapy research, 95 percent of the water temperatures during the tests were in the above ranges of hot and cold water. This is why it's so crucial to use a thermometer to gauge the water temperature. Preventing accidental burns or exposure to excessively frigid waters that drop skin blood flow rates to extremely low levels can cause both pain as well as damage of delicate skin tissue.
Cold water immersion and contrast bath therapy bottom line
Contrast baths involve a series of brief, repeated immersions in water, alternating between warm and cold temperatures. And while research supports the use of contrast water therapy to lessen muscle fatigue and decrease pain, swelling, and lactic acid buildup following intense exercise, it's essential to closely control the temperatures of the hot and cold water tubs. Also, always check with a doctor and have someone close-by to monitor your reaction to the treatment routine.
The most convenient tubs for contrast therapy
When you're seeking contrast therapy anytime at home, RENU Therapy delivers. RENU builds every cold plunge tub 100% in the USA. We provide the best warranty coverage on the market and strive for 100% customer satisfaction with every cold immersion tub we sell! All of our cold therapy tubs feature world-class designs that will add to the beauty of your home or office.