Ever heard of the Icy Hot Patch? Well apparently not only does Shaq stand behind the product, science is playing ball too.
Calder (1996) is an advocate of contrast water therapy (hot-cold water immersion) and purports that the technique increases peripheral circulation and reduces recovery time by two mechanisms: removing toxins from the body and stimulating the sympathetic nervous system whereby the brain is flooded with a handful of wonderful neurotransmitters. But wait there’s more! Contrast water therapy also helps the body to clear lactic acid (a compound that creates fatigue in muscles), reduce oedema (excess watery fluid within the body), and increases blood flow to the activated muscles (Calder, 1996). More so, contrast water therapy has been touted for its ability to slow down the metabolism and reinvigorate the mind (Calder, 1996).
Hot water therapy also known as thermotherapy has been “shown to increase tissue temperature, increase local blood flow, increase muscle elasticity, cause local vasodilation, increase metabolite production and reduce muscle spasm, [additionally] superficial heating decreases sympathetic nerve drive which causes vasodilation of local blood vessels and increases circulation” (Cochrane, 2004, p. 27).
In contrast, cold therapy often performed through water immersion, lowers skin and muscle temperature (Cochrane, 2004). This in turn stimulates cutaneous (skin) receptors causing sympathetic nerve fibres to excite and vasoconstrict producing a reduction in swelling and inflammation through a slowing of the metabolism (Cochrane, 2004).
Contrast water therapy has more benefits than those direct effects mentioned above, where according to Mooventhan and Nivethitha (2014) its able to:
- Improve cardiovascular functioning
- Decrease tension and fatigue
- Improve mood and memory
- Reduce LDL and raise HDL cholesterol
- Improve microcirculation
- Reduce free radical damage and increase antioxidant activity
- Decrease anxiety and depression
- Increase endorphins and noradrenaline
- Reduce symptoms of fibromyalgia
- Enhance the digestive system
- Increase immunity
- Improves eye, hair and skin quality
- Enhance temperature regulation
Although promising for short-term recovery, a study on rugby players by Higgins (2015) found that the benefits of contrast water therapy were only evident for up to 24 hours.
The best way to perform contrast water therapy at home is to alternate the temperature of the water of your shower between hot and cold. Start with a minute at each temperature then you can increase to five minutes between hot and cold. The effects are compounded when you repeat the alternation numerous times. As an example: Try 2 minutes hot and 2 minutes cold at 3 times total. Try to finish on hot. You can adjust this as you like. After each round of contrast water therapy, you should feel warm, fuzzy and tingly all over, with a bright sunny disposition!
Cochrane, D. J. (2004). Alternating hot and cold water immersion for athlete recovery: a review. Physical Therapy in Sport, 5(1), 26-32. Myrer, J. W., Measom, G., Durrant, E., & Fellingham, G. W. (1997).
Mooventhan, A., & Nivethitha, L. (2014). Scientific evidence-based effects of hydrotherapy on various systems of the body. North American journal of medical sciences, 6(5), 199.