Hydrotherapy, also known as the water cure, is quickly gaining popularity. It is a branch of alternative medicine that involves the use of water to treat a disease, relieve pain or maintain health. One of the most common forms of hydrotherapy is hot cold shower therapy. Hot cold shower therapy is claimed to have many benefits for health including boosting immunity and circulation. It is also claimed to support the body’s detoxification system. This article takes a look at the science-backed benefits of hot cold shower therapy, technique, and possible risks.
What Is Hot Cold Shower Therapy?
The use of hydrotherapy in the management of pain and maintenance of health dates back to ancient Greece. It has since been used in cultures across Ancient Rome, Japan, and China. Currently, different forms of hydrotherapy including contrast showers are being used worldwide.
Common types of hydrotherapy include aquatic exercises, aquatic physical therapy, saunas, sitz baths, warm water baths, and ice water baths (17).
Hydrotherapy has been used in infants to treat limitation of motion and muscle tone abnormalities affecting quantity and quality of spontaneous movement. In pregnant women, hydrotherapy is used to increase uterine contraction efficiency and reduce anxiety (7).
Hot cold shower therapy involves an alternating immersion into hot and cold water. It is also referred to as contrast hydrotherapy. A contrast shower take anywhere between 5 to 20 minutes.
This practice is common among athletes who use contrast shower benefits to treat muscle damage, sore muscles and speed up recovery. Sometimes people use it for a specific body part, for example immersing a swollen limb in hot water then cold water.
Contrast showers cause changes in your circulatory system when you go from very warm to very cold water. The application of hot and cold water causes intermittent vasodilation and vasoconstriction (2).
Vasodilation on the other hand occurs when you immerse part of or your whole body in hot water. Vasodilation is the widening of the blood vessels due to the relaxation of the blood vessel’s muscular wall (11).
Vasoconstriction refers to the narrowing of blood vessels as a result of the contraction of the muscular walls of the blood vessels (18). When you immerse your body in cold water, the blood vessels respond by vasoconstricting.
This intermittent vasodilation and vasoconstriction induces a vascular pumping effect that in turn causes increased blood flow and tissue oxygenation. This improves tissue healing, reduces edema, promotes recovery, and improves tissue function (2).
Contrast hydrotherapy is a form of passive therapy. And even though research indicates that active therapies are more effective at pain management than passive ones, hot bath cold shower therapy has numerous benefits (12).
It is important to note that cold water baths and hot water baths also have benefits. You can choose either depending on the desired effect. Both these types of showers help reduce fatigue and muscle soreness.
Ice bath involves an immersion into ice water or a bath of ice. In ice baths, the temperature of the water is much lower than in cold water baths. Ice bath benefits include boosting circulation, immune system support, reduction in stress, anxiety, and fatigue (9).
Cold shower benefits include (15):
- Decreased inflammation and swelling
- Tightens the skin
- Accelerates metabolism
- Improved circulation
- Stimulates the immune system
On the other hand, taking a hot shower helps (10):
- Reduce fatigue and relax muscles
- Reduce headaches
- Improve sleep
- Relieve nasal congestion
- Improve brain health
- Open pores and cleanse the skin
Benefits Of Contrast Hydrotherapy
So, what does science say about hot cold shower benefits? Below are the health benefits of taking a contrast shower:
Being exposed to cold water makes blood vessels on your skin’s surface constrict. This then actively diverts blood flow away from the surface of your skin.
This 2019 study found that showering with cold water after workouts can improve general hydration by cooling your body (14).
When blood travels away from your skin, the vessels in tissues deeper in your body dilate. The result? Improved circulation in the tissues.
Boosts Your Immune System
The immune system protects your body from harmful substances such as pathogens and any cell changes that could make you ill.
Contrast showers may help boost your immune system. Studies show that both warm and cold water therapies may help boost your immune system through various mechanisms.
Cold-water treatment helps increase the number and activity of peripheral cytotoxic T-lymphocytes and NK cells, which are the major effectors of adaptive and innate tumor immunity, respectively (13).
Warm water treatment helps cure bacterial cold-water disease and immunizes against the causative agent Flavobacterium psychrophilum (13).
Some athletes have indicated that contrast hydrotherapy aids in alleviating post-game exhaustion.
A meta-analysis was done in 2017 to explore the effects of contrasting hydrotherapy fatigue recovery. It was discovered that the technique was instrumental in helping team sports players recover from fatigue. This was 24-48 hours after the game (6).
Cold water immersion did not have the same effect.
Reduces Muscle Soreness
It’s not unusual for intense workout sessions to damage your muscle fibers. In fact, that has to happen for your muscles to grow. The only downside, however, is that the process can lead to muscle soreness.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a phenomenon where you feel sore a day or so after your workout. Studies have indicated that contrast hydrotherapy reduces muscle soreness and weakness better than passive resting alone (5).
In the study, the researchers discovered that (5):
- The best results occurred when the hot water temperature was regulated below 104 degrees F (40 degrees C).
- Popular therapies like cold water immersion were just as effective in relieving these symptoms compared to contrast hydrotherapy.
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Some research shows that contrast showers decrease swelling. One randomized clinical trial found that contrast showers help reduce swelling in individuals with ankle sprains about 3 days after injury (3).
Gets Rid Of Excess Lactic Acid
Lactic Acid is a byproduct of anaerobic respiration. During exercise, the concentration of lactic acid in the blood increases. The accumulation of Lactic acid can cause fatigue and soreness.
Studies show that contrast hydrotherapy can help remove excess lactic acid in your body. This helps with the recovery from the fatigue and soreness that follows any virus exercise like cardio or weight lifting (4) (16).
Other ways you can ease symptoms of lactic acid buildup include resting, drinking lots of water, increasing your magnesium intake, and eating rich foods rich in vitamin B.
Can Be Helpful For People With Arthritis
Hydrotherapy has also been shown to help reduce pain in individuals with rheumatoid arthritis (1). Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease in which the body attacks its own tissue, especially joints.
A 2017 study compared the effect of hydrotherapy and land exercises on individuals with rheumatoid arthritis. 115 patients were randomized to receive hydrotherapy or land exercises for 30 minutes weekly for 6 weeks.
The study found that individuals who received hydrotherapy reported feeling much better than those treated with land exercises (1). If you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, you can check with your doctor to see if hydrotherapy is an option you can explore.
Are There Any Risks?
Now that we are familiar with the benefits of contrast hydrotherapy you probably are wondering if there are any downsides. The greatest risk is that you may cause damage to your skin. If the water is too hot, you can get a burn injury or heat stroke.
If body temperature drops below 32.2 degrees Celcius, an individual may experience
- A drop in blood pressure
- Decreased level of consciousness
- Decreased breathing rate
Hot cold shower therapy is not for everyone. If you have any skin condition such as eczema, psoriasis be careful before you try such a treatment method. You should also avoid it if you have any of the following:
- Open or untreated wounds
- A heart condition
- Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
A hot-cold shower is generally safe and can provide health benefits as long as extremely hot or cold temperatures are avoided. Before trying any form of alternative medicine such as hydrotherapy, always discuss it with your General Physician.
How To Do It
Individuals who do contrast therapy always do it under the guidance and supervision of a physical therapist or athletic trainer. You can however do it at home if your doctor has given you the approval to try this method.
During physical therapy or a clinic session, you will immerse your body in tubs of water containing very warm and cold water. It could also involve immersing only the injured limb or part of your body in the different tubs.
If you are doing a hot-cold shower therapy session at home you’ll require
- A thermometer
- Two tubs or containers big enough to immerse your whole body or the affected area
The cold water should be about 50-59°F (10-15°C) which is below room temperature, and the hot water should be 95-113°F (35-45°C). Use your thermometer to test the temperatures so that the water isn’t too cold and to avoid any burn injuries.
Practices on the temperature to be used may vary. You can always ask your doctor or physical therapist what is best.
After your water tubs are ready, do the following:
- Submerge your whole body or the injured area in the warm water tub for 1 to 3 minutes.
- Then immerse yourself immediately in the cold water for one minute.
- Repeat this for about 20 minutes. Your last immersion should be in cold water.
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Can You Do Hot And Cold Therapy In The Shower?
Yes, you can. Contrast therapy involves alternating between warm and cold water. This is often done via immersion where you submerge your body into a tub container containing heated or cold water.
However, you can do this therapy in the shower by switching from the hot shower setting to the cold shower. The only downside is that you might not be able to check the temperature of the water during the shower.
Research seems to suggest that contrast hydrotherapy has several health benefits. Taking contrast showers helps boost the immune system, reduce fatigue, swelling, muscle soreness, and build-up of excess lactic acid.
You can try contrast hydrotherapy at home with the consent of your doctor or under the supervision of a physical therapist or trainer. Remember to be cautious with the temperatures of the water to avoid any injuries.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- A pragmatic randomised controlled trial of hydrotherapy and land exercises on overall well being and quality of life in rheumatoid arthritis (2007, biomedcentral.com)
- Contrast Baths, Intramuscular Hemodynamics, and Oxygenation as Monitored by Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Contrast Therapy and Heat Therapy in Subacute Stage of Grade I and II Lateral Ankle Sprains (2016, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Contrast water immersion hastens plasma lactate decrease after intense anaerobic exercise (2007, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Contrast Water Therapy and Exercise Induced Muscle Damage: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis (2013, journals.plos.org)
- Effects of Cold Water Immersion and Contrast Water Therapy for Recovery From Team Sport: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis (2017, journals.lww.com)
- Hydrotherapy – An Overview (n.d., sciencedirect.com)
- Inflammatory responses and inflammation-associated diseases in organs (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Is the ice bath finally melting? Cold water immersion is no greater than active recovery upon local and systemic inflammatory cellular stress in humans (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Physical and Mental Effects of Bathing: A Randomized Intervention Study (2018, hindawi.com)
- Physiology, Vasodilation (2021, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Role of Active Versus Passive Complementary and Integrative Health Approaches in Pain Management (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Stabilizing Bioimpedance-Vector-Analysis Measures With a 10-Minute Cold Shower After Running Exercise to Enable Assessment of Body Hydration (2019, journals.humankinetics.com)
- The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial (2016, journals.plos.org)
- The effect of contrast temperature water therapy on repeated sprint performance (2007, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Types and Health Benefits of Hydrotherapy (2021, health.clevelandclinic.org)
- Vasoconstriction: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia (n.d., medlineplus.gov)