cold water immersion tubs

What is the First Stage of Cold Water Immersion? Everything You Need to Know About the Initial Cold Shock

cold water immersion tubs

Cold water immersion therapy has many benefits for athletes and non-athletes alike. Plunging into cold water can help you reach your weight loss goal and improve brain functioning to ace that test, exam, board meeting, or job interview. In fact, when done correctly, cold water immersion therapy can positively impact several aspects of our lives.

Before you leap into your nearest cold water tub, you must have at least a basic understanding of what ice-cold water can do, so you can prepare yourself for the initial shock.

The First Stage of Cold Water Immersion

There are four stages of cold water immersion:

  1. Cold
  2. Burning
  3. Aching
  4. Numbness

Each has its positive and negative effects, which you must understand before submerging your body, head, and all in freezing water.

We'll look at the first stage here.

Cold or Cold Shock

Cold water shock is the first involuntary reaction to immersion in water that is 59F (15C) or lower. The reaction occurs as soon as your body enters the cold water and can continue for three to five minutes before moving to the next stage.

It's especially dangerous because it's underestimated. The focus is on hypothermia, which occurs later on. Meanwhile, more people die each year from cold shock than from hypothermia.

The biggest danger is accidental exposure, like falling through thin ice.

The risks of sudden immersions in water aren't as great during ice water therapy because the process is controlled. Still, it's a good idea to know the effects, symptoms, dangers, and recovery procedure because you never know.

Physiological Response

Sudden exposure to cold water, like when you first step into a cold shower or sit in a cold bath, triggers muscle spasms, gasping and hyperventilation, and a dramatic increase in heart rate and blood pressure.

The immediate risks of cold shock response are cardiac arrest, even in people with no history of heart problems, and complete muscle paralysis. Out in open water, these are serious problems. In the safety of cold plunge tubs at home, muscle paralysis isn't fatal, but cardiac arrest certainly can be.

These risks emphasize the importance of never entering cold water environments alone. You must have someone else with you, a friend or therapist, who can help get you out of the water if your muscles stop functioning or call for an ambulance when you're in cardiac distress.

Cold Water vs. Cold Air

Cold water has far more rapid and severe effects than exposure to cold air. According to technical specs, water's thermal conductivity is 25 times that of air. Water's volume-specific heat capacity is over 3000 times that of air. Basically, falling into a frozen lake will kill you four times faster than freezing cold air conditions.

While you're likely to die in freezing water within 20 - 30 minutes, it'll take at least an hour on land. 

Cold Water Conditioning

You can't prepare for unanticipated events, like falling off a yacht in the northern Atlantic Ocean, but you can condition your body to tolerate ice-cold water in a therapeutic context.

It starts with graduated exposure to frigid water. A minute in a cold shower is a good place to start. It may not seem like it, but a minute in a shower of cold water can feel much longer when your head is directly underneath the shower head. Increase your exposure slowly to about five minutes over two weeks.

You can graduate to cold baths where you'll also take things slowly. There are two factors to consider in a cold tub: depth and temperature. Don't rush either of them. Not only can the experience put you off cold water for life, but it can also inflict long-term physical damage.

Cold water conditioning is not a linear process. Some days are better than others. Don't worry if you were able to sit in cold water up to your waist for five minutes yesterday, but today, you can only manage three minutes. Everyone progresses at their own pace. Consider yourself unique and keep at it.

Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises can help you when you first step into the cold water, at the moment of cold shock. It avoids the risk of a gasp reflex, which leads to quick, shallow breaths, and hyperventilation.

The trick is to enter the water on a slow exhale. You can exhale through your nose or you can purse your lips as if to blow out a candle. It helps to practice controlled breathing so you are comfortable with deep body breaths and don't end up light-headed and ready to faint. Continue the breathing exercises as you lower yourself into the water or step fully under the shower head.

You can even hum if that makes you feel better. Humming, like controlled breathing, helps keep the blood vessels open longer, so you don't feel the cold immediately. Instead, it's more gradual, easier to tolerate, and lessens the impact on bodily function and mental ability.

cold water immersion tubs

The impact on mental ability is important because your mind can quickly slip into panic, which makes everything worse. You become disorientated and can't think clearly. You lose manual dexterity, feel helpless, and fatigue sets in. If you can keep your mind functioning properly, you can spare yourself most of these symptoms.

Cold shock response can have the same effect on you in your shower or cold water tub. Confusion, disorientation, and inability to act put you at risk of drowning in a tub. You could faint and knock yourself out on a shower tap. Both prolong your exposure to cold water and can lead to hypothermia and death.

Cold Water Immersion Tubs Can Save Your Life

It might sound dramatic, but it's true. Cold water tubs come with temperature control, so the temperature never goes below your tolerance level. There are also timers so you don't spend more than 20 - 30 minutes in the cold water. However, even with these essential features, you always need a tub buddy. Someone who's there just in case.

RENU Therapy has a range of cold water immersion tubs that suit any need. We even have inflatable traveling tubs, so you don't miss a therapy session, no matter where you are. Contact us now via our onsite contact us form or call (714) 617-2007.