An in-depth look at cold therapy: Types, health benefits, and more

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Cold therapy, involving applying cold temperatures to the body for a specific benefit, has become increasingly popular as a wellness trend in the 21st century. Many proponents posit that it can relieve pain, reduce swelling, and offer mental health benefits. To understand these potential benefits and the research surrounding this treatment, exploring the different types available, their benefits, and tips for effectively incorporating these techniques into your wellness routine can be beneficial. 

Getty
Wondering how cold therapy can help mental health?

Types of cold therapy

There are several ways to apply cold temperatures to the body for therapeutic purposes. Some of the most common methods are below.

Ice baths/water immersion

By immersing your body in a tub of cold water or ice, ice baths may help you reduce inflammation and relieve muscle soreness and fatigue.

Showers

Cold showers can invigorate the body, improve circulation, and aid mental clarity. Taking cold showers may also help boost immunity and fight symptoms of depression.

Ice or gel packs

Applying an ice pack, ice, or frozen items directly to an injured or sore area may treat injuries by reducing swelling and pain. 

Ice massages

Using ice cubes or specialized ice massage tools, this technique involves massaging an injured or sore area to apply cold therapy and promote healing.

Wim Hof method

A combination of cold exposure, breathing techniques, and meditation, the Wim Hof Method has gained popularity for boosting mental and physical well-being.

Potential health benefits 

Cold therapy may offer various health benefits, though some experts caution that the evidence surrounding these benefits is inconclusive, and more research is needed. Below are a few of these proposed benefits: 

  • Pain relief: Some research has found that cold therapy can reduce pain, including in individuals with delayed onset muscle soreness that has come on after exercise. 
  • Reduced swelling: Applying cold therapy to an injured area can help to control swellings, which can be tied to pain.
  • Improved circulation: Exposing the body to cold temperatures can stimulate blood flow, enhancing overall circulation and promoting faster recovery.
  • Defensive health effects: Some studies suggest that regular cold exposure, such as cold-water immersion, may have a defensive effect on the whole body against cardiovascular disease, obesity, and other metabolic diseases.
Getty/AnnaStills

The science behind it

The science behind cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is rooted in the body's physiological responses to cold temperatures. Below are some key mechanisms and evidence supporting the use of cold therapy.

Vasoconstriction

With heat therapy, your blood vessels expand and cause your blood flow to increase. However, when the body is exposed to cold temperatures, the blood vessels constrict, reducing blood flow to the area. This process, known as vasoconstriction, can help decrease inflammation and swelling in injured or sore tissues. It’s often recommended for managing pain associated with injuries like a swollen ankle.

Reduced metabolic activity

Cold temperatures can slow cellular metabolic activity, reducing tissue damage and inflammation. When inflammation is reduced, healing processes may be quicker and more efficient. 

Numbing effects

Cold therapy can numb nerve endings and decrease the sensation of pain in the affected area. This effect can temporarily relieve pain and offer the most relief for acute injuries or soreness that occurs after physical exercise. However, the pain management that cold therapy can provide is often most effective when paired with other approaches, including pain medicine, rest, and elevation.

Thermogenesis

The body's natural response to cold exposure is to generate heat, a process called thermogenesis. This response can help improve circulation and increase the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, promoting faster recovery and healing.

Evidence supporting this treatment

While there are numerous anecdotal reports and individual experiences supporting the benefits of cold therapy, scientific evidence is still emerging, and there is debate on this topic.

Some research and clinical studies have shown promising results, including those on the following topics. 

Pain relief

A systematic review published in 2012 found that cold therapy was effective in reducing pain after exercise-induced muscle damage. This review concluded that there was some evidence that cold therapy could reduce muscle soreness after exercise. After exercising, cold water therapy via cold showers could be beneficial in reducing blood pressure, pain, and other health challenges. 

Improved mood

A 2021 study published in the journal Lifestyle Medicine found that cold-water immersion could positively impact mood. This study found that cold-water immersion could be capable of significantly improving mood in young, fit, and healthy individuals.

However, more research may be needed to understand long-term benefits fully. While some studies have shown promising results, additional high-quality research may be required to name cold therapy an evidence-based approach.

Additional research suggests that swimming in cold water could immediately stop a panic attack, potentially due to calming effects of cold water. Exposure to cold, even a cold shower or a cold object, can reset the nervous system, leading to a quick shock that can help someone get out of their mind and connect to their body. It may be an additional form of grounding, with a basis in medical findings.

However, because there may be some risk to effects of cold water or ice, such as restricted blood vessels, it is important to find a doctor to discuss your health before using body cryotherapy or another form of cold therapy. 

Getty
Wondering how cold therapy can help mental health?

Considerations before beginning 

While some types of cold therapy, like taking a cold shower or applying a cold ice or gel pack, are generally safe, it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider before participating in cold therapy. Using it incorrectly can cause damage or make your pain worse. People with medical conditions such as heart disease or Raynaud’s syndrome may have adverse reactions to a cold environment or chilly water temperature. Conditions like diabetes can also make it hard to sense tissue damage caused by an application of direct cold, like an icy gel pack. 

In addition, some types of cold therapy are still being researched for safety and effectiveness. Whole body cryotherapy, which involves exposing your entire body to extremely cold air below 100℃, which temporarily lowers your skin temperature and core temperature, is not recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology or the FDA. It has been linked to numerous cases of extreme tissue damage from frostbite.

Alternative counseling options 

Incorporating new habits and techniques into your routine can be challenging, and trying to figure out what practices might work best for your symptoms can be difficult. Individuals who want to incorporate cold therapy or alternative approaches into their wellness routine may find connecting with a counselor for support helpful.  

When trying to incorporate a new habit into your life, you may have questions, concerns, or realizations that pop up randomly. In such instances, you may find it helpful to have quick reach to a therapist. With online counseling through a platform like BetterHelp, you can use in-app messaging to reach out to your counselor anytime, and they will respond as soon as possible. You can find a counselor with expertise in various areas of mental health and set your goals upon signing up. 

A growing body of research supports the effectiveness of online counseling in various techniques. For instance, online counseling may have similar or more effective results if you are interested in cold therapy for its potential benefits for mood. One 2021 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) could be an effective treatment option for individuals with depression

As you explore cold therapy and alternative wellness practices, an online mental health professional can provide valuable support, helping you navigate the process and optimize your well-being with chat support and options to choose between phone, video, or chat sessions. 

Takeaway

Cold therapy may offer several potential health benefits, but further research is needed to provide more conclusive evidence. By understanding the science behind this technique and exploring various methods, you can make informed decisions about incorporating cold therapy into your wellness routine. To get started, consider seeking the guidance of a mental health professional for guidance and support.

ƒ

Explore mental health and healing in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started