Treating Sore Muscles with Cold Therapy

Chris Gabriel, PT, OCS

Whether it’s a simple cold pack, ice bath or a higher tech application, athletes are always looking for the latest and greatest tool to aid recovery and minimize downtime between intense training sessions.

One of the most common types of cold therapy is the use of ice baths. Over the past few years, whole body cryotherapy (WBC) treatments have become popular, and are commonly used by professional athletes. Not everyone is a candidate for cold therapy treatment and it is recommended to seek medical advice before trying any new treatment.

How do ice baths vs cryotherapy treatments compare? See below for key differences.


Ice Bath Treatment

  • Fill a bathtub or bucket with ice cubes and water.
  • Shoot for a water temperature between 11 - 15 degrees Celsius. Start a little warmer if you are unsure of your tolerance.
  • Slowly get into the cold water, staying in the water until you feel a slight numbness. The length of time in the tub will depend on tolerance to cold. Research studies have shown the best recovery results from 11 – 15 minutes.
  • Can’t stand the cold? Try a contrast bath. Alternate between one minute of cold, then two minutes in a warm tub of water. Repeat three times. If pain or swelling is a major issue, finish in the cold.

Research Says: A 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis in the journal Sports Medicine revealed that cold water immersion has a more positive effect on muscle soreness than passive recovery in both the short and long term.


Cryotherapy Treatment

  • Commonly you’ll get into a tank or capsule, wearing shorts, gloves and dry socks. The tank surrounds your body with your neck and head typically outside of the tank.
  • As you stand, the tank fills up with nitrogen gas or refrigerated cold air, at a temperature below -100 degrees Celsius. Despite this shockingly low number, I’ve found it is much more tolerable than ice baths.
  • The treatment typically lasts only between two – four minutes.
  • A professional should be with you the entire treatment session- you will not be locked inside the device. Many reports of adverse effects of the treatment involve individuals using the units unsupervised.

Research Says: This is a relatively new treatment, so quality research is sparse. A 2015 Cochrane Review determined that the current available evidence is insufficient to support WBC for prevention and treatment of muscle soreness in adults.

As a physical therapist, I commonly see athletes looking for even the slightest edge to improve performance. WBC units are available at some health clubs, and mobile units are popping up at various sporting events. These may be worth a try, especially during periods of highly intense training. However, it’s important to carefully consider safety concerns and research findings when evaluating any new treatment.


Don't Stay Static

An easy, free and less chilly way to help muscle tissues turn over after a difficult workout is to simply keep the body moving. Being static, in the hours and days after a hard workout will only worsen soreness and stiffness. Incorporating a simple swim, bike ride or brisk walk can help the body turn over quicker and get ready to exercise again. Foam rolling or massages are great options as well.


Chris Gabriel, PT, OCS (Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist), CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist), is a physical therapist with OrthoCarolina Matthews. Chris and his team treat a range of patients for orthopedic and sports medicine needs. He enjoys working with various local high school, college and professional sports teams.





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