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What Is Contrast Water Therapy & What Are the Benefits?

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What is contrast water therapy?

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Contrast water therapy, or contrast bathing, refers to rapid changes produced in the circulatory system when people bathe in hot water and then plunge into very cold water.

“Cold immersion is an age-old tradition in hydrothermal bathing. The Finnish are among the first known, in relatively modern times, to actively use hot and cold contrast therapy as part of their bathing ritual. After spending time in a hot sauna, bathers would leave the cabin, sweating profusely and take a “roll in the snow”. It not only cooled them down but also helped cleanse any dirt from their skin. Today, hot/cold contrast therapy is a growing trend,” according to Don Genders of Design for Leisure, a team of hydrothermal spa specialists working in partnership with owners, operators and architects to bring hydrotherapy concepts to life.

How to do contrast water therapy

Ice hole bath

People who use contrast bath therapy usually do so under the guidance of a trainer or physical therapist. In a physical therapy or rehabilitation clinic, your therapy session could involve whole body immersion in different whirlpools or tubs. Or it could involve a more targeted intervention in which you submerge the injured area.

Though many people do contrast therapy while supervised by a professional therapist, it’s possible to try it on your own. But do check with your GP first to make sure it’s safe for you.

Contrasting should follow the following basic pattern: three to six alternations between heating and cooling.

To create your own contrast water therapy session, you would need two containers or tubs large enough to submerge either your whole body or the injured part of your body, a thermometer to measure the water temperature and towels. Water in the cold container should be between 10-15°C and water in the hot container should be between 35-45°C. In a study of contrast therapies, 95% of the water temperatures were in those ranges. It’s important to use a thermometer to gauge the water temperature so you don’t accidentally burn yourself or use water that’s too cold.

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Once you have the water ready at the correct temperature, take the following steps; you can either immerse yourself partially or entirely in warm water for one to three minutes. Immediately follow with a one-minute dip in cold water. Repeat this process for approximately 20 minutes, ending with cold water.

Top Tips for contrast water bathing

  • Stay warm

    It's good to be more thorough with your heat part of the treatment, if you can do this for at least a minute and ideally for as long as five minutes, depending on how efficient your heating method is. Heat is more comforting and relaxing than cooling, obviously and inadequate heating is the most common thing people get wrong with contrasting.

  • Finish with cold

    You should usually finish a contrast session with cold, particularly if you suspect that you might be a little inflamed. Never finish with heat if you’re concerned about aggravating inflammation. You might choose to finish with heat if your treatment priority is to have a more relaxing experience.

  • Stretch when hot

    Stretching can help but if you choose to stretch, do it after or even during the heating phase, as you may hurt yourself if you stretch cold muscles. If you have to stop heating to stretch, reheat after stretching before moving on to the cold.

  • Ramp it up as you go

    It is desirable (though not always practical) to increase the intensity of the contrast as you go: that is, the hot gets hotter and the cold gets colder.

What are the health benefits of a contrast bath?

There is growing evidence that contrast hydrotherapy has benefits for our health and for injury recovery. When you rapidly alternate between hot water and cold-water bathing, your blood vessels open and close in a pulsing motion. It’s thought that this pulsing action can help to relieve injury symptoms, by reducing inflammation and helping to create better circulation near injuries or areas of pain.

Contrast baths could help conditions such as high blood pressure. When you submerge your body (or parts of it) in cold water, small blood vessels called capillaries respond to the cold by shrinking. This is known as ‘Vasoconstriction’, which helps to maintain healthy blood flow and keeps your body temperature from getting too cold. By contrast, when you immerse yourself in warm water, the blood capillaries open up and this is known as ‘Vasodilation’, which can be a valuable tool to treat conditions such as high blood pressure or even altitude sickness.

Contrasting water temperatures also affect the heart rate and how fast it beats. Studies show that cold water causes the heart rate to speed up, while hot water slows it down. Ice and heat packs are familiar rehabilitation tools but many people have never heard of water contrast therapy (quickly changing tissue temperature from hot to cold and back again). This is usually achieved with alternate hot and cold water, either immersing an affected limb or the whole body.

How is contrast bathing a good water therapy for injuries?

For injury recovery, contrast therapy is a good, cheap, safe and simple idea when carried out correctly. The idea is to force your tissues to adapt to the sudden changes, which has a stimulatory effect and requires a lot of metabolic and circulatory activity. In other words, contrasting constitutes a gentle tissue workout: stimulation without stress on the injured part, strong sensations of heat and cold without movement, all of which may be helpful for a body part that needs rest while it heals. So contrast therapy can work well for things like ankle sprain, plantar fasciitis or for swelling after an injury.

Contrast bath therapy is considered a passive form of therapy. Aside from some gentle motions you might perform, you aren’t actively moving or stretching your muscles as part of this treatment or doing anything strenuous. But many believe that contrast hydrotherapy can help with certain conditions and symptoms.

Reduces fatigue

Athletes might find that contrast hydrotherapy helps alleviate post-game fatigue. A 2017 piece of research found that contrasting hot and cold baths helped team sports players recover from fatigue 24-48 hours after the game. Immersion in cold water alone didn’t provide the same benefit.

Decreases muscle soreness

Intense exercise causes damage to your muscle fibres. But you might not feel sore until a day or so later. This is called ‘delayed onset muscle soreness’ or ‘DOMS’. Researchers measured both DOMS and muscle weakness in elite athletes following strenuous workouts. They found that contrast bath therapy improved both the soreness and weakness better than passive resting alone.

Removes excess lactic acid

When you exercise vigorously, lactic acid builds up in your body. The accumulation of lactic acid is normal but it can make you feel tired and achy. You can ease the symptoms of lactic acid build up in your body by resting, drinking water and taking a magnesium supplement. A study conducted in 2007 showed that contrast bath therapy can also help decrease the lactic acid in your body, helping you recover from the muscle ache and fatigue of strenuous exercise.

Decreases swelling

When you get injured, part of your body’s normal inflammatory response is a rush of fluid and white blood cells to the injured area. The build-up of this fluid can exert pressure on the injury and cause pain.

There is some evidence that contrast baths reduce swelling. Another study involving 115 people with ankle sprains, found that contrast hydrotherapy lessened swelling around 3 days post injury.

What are the risks of contrast therapy?

The primary risk of contrast bath therapy is that you could harm your skin if the water temperature is either too hot or too cold. It could also cause a heart arrhythmia. We do recommend that you be careful and use common sense:

  • Steer clear of this if you have virtually any kind of general health problem, especially cardiovascular disease or low blood pressure for example
  • The older you are, the more careful you should be
  • Don’t be too extreme with the temperatures and don’t underestimate how potent full-body contrasting can be, even at more modest temperatures
  • Stay hydrated! This is an important to prevent a surprise drop in blood pressure
  • If you get light-headed, get out, get down, and discontinue the exercise

Contrast bath therapy isn’t safe for every condition. It’s important to talk to your GP or healthcare provider before you try contrast hydrotherapy, especially if you’re thinking of immersing most of your body. This is especially important if you have issues like open wounds, heart problems, high blood pressure or deep vein thrombosis.

To Sum Up

Contrast bath therapy is a series of brief, repeated immersions in water, alternating between warm and cold temperatures. Research supports the use of contrast hydrotherapy to lessen muscle fatigue and to decrease pain, swelling, and lactic acid build up following intense exercise.

You can use contrast hydrotherapy under the supervision of a trained therapist. Or you can try it at home by dipping your body or the injured body part into warm water, then switching to cold water and repeating the process several times.

There are some risks for people with certain conditions. Be sure to talk to your GP before you try this intervention on your own.

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