Ice baths and cold plunges are used around the world for the huge range of mental and physical benefits they can offer.
From enhancing physical performance to improving health and wellbeing, there is a use for a cold plunge for people from almost every walk of life.
The more we learn on the science and benefits they can offer, the more we trust them and will be willing to give them a try in our own life.
As taking a cold shower or bath is such a unique thing to even think might have medical benefits though, did you ever wonder how the process came to be?
Understanding the origins of a product or process can often be helpful to understand how it works and what it achieves, giving you a fuller appreciation of what it is all about. With that in mind, I want to give you a complete guide to the history of cold plunges.
In this article, we will cover everything from where they originated to how they have evolved and our understanding of them has grown through the years.
So, if you want to get to know your ice bath inside and out before you take the plunge and give it a go, this is the article for you.
Where Did Ice Baths Originate?
While the exact origins of the use of cold water as a form of physical therapy are uncertain, evidence suggests the practice has been used since as far back as between 3,500 B.C. and 5,000 B.C.
Experts have found signs that cold plunges or ice baths were used in both ancient Rome and ancient Greece, as well as other civilisations like the Israelites and in places like Egypt, Iceland, and India.
Most signs point to the ancient Greeks as perhaps being the innovators of cold water therapy in any sort of organised form.
A process they called thermalism saw people submerged in cold waters of varying temperatures as a means to soothe their bodies and combat a variety of health issues, such as skin conditions, physical injuries, wounds, and even illnesses.
Records show that legendary philosophers and doctors like Plato and Hippocrates conducted a wide array of studies into the practice of using cold water, as well as hot water, to determine the exact benefits that using heated or cooled water was able to offer the human body.
The Roman Empire
By the time the Roman Empire was at the height of its powers, the discoveries and techniques used by the Greeks had been tested and refined.
They could then be further advanced, due to newer technology and access to more “modern” infrastructure, such as aqueducts.
Cold water was frequently used by gladiators and soldiers after a battle or competition, as it would help soothe their muscles and relieve any inflammation or pain from wounds they may have received.
Meanwhile, warm and hot water were being using more frequently for washing both clothes and the body, as it was shown to be more hygienic and could get things much cleaner. This led to the birth of the public Roman baths and spas, allowing the benefits to be used and enjoyed on a large scale.
Much like in Greek times, the top minds of the Roman era spent a great deal of time examining the benefits and mechanisms of hot and cold water treatments.
This was when the process of hydrology was born, and water at different heats actually started to be prescribed as a cure for some ailments.
The British Empire
While continual technological advancements helped to refine hydrology to some extent and provide slight improvements throughout the centuries, it remained much the same as it had been during the Roman Empire up until the early 18th century, at the height of the British Empire.
Ice baths and cold plunges were now fairly commonly used to assist with the treatment of things like fatigue, muscle spasms, and various other health conditions.
Hot water therapy had also grown into a larger social event for societies elite, while many of the spas began adding cold options as well.
It was at this time that new medical breakthroughs helped British doctors get a better understanding of the true effects of cold water therapy and how it worked. This is when things like mud packs, ice packs, and other methods of applying hot and cold to the body began to be developed as well.
They then began to officially prescribe it as a treatment for both mental and physical issues, things like fever, and even growing pains in children and young adults.
These same advancements had also led to physical therapy and exercise being prescribed as a treatment for ailments more often as well.
When cold therapy began to be used in conjunction with exercise, dramatic advancements were achieved, as it was seen just how clearly the two processes could be to both physical and mental health when used together.
People also began adding massages into their healing routines as well.
Cold Plunges In The Modern Day
In modern times, the cold plunge experience has taken on a much more sophisticated appearance.
For starters, as modern medicine has advanced dramatically, ice baths have become a much less common way to treat illnesses, although they are still an effective method to do so.
They are, however, still incredibly frequently used in sporting environments, particularly at the top level.
Their ability to relieve muscular soreness and improve recovery helps to prevent injuries and allows athletes to get back to training and competing much sooner than they otherwise could.
Types Of Cold Plunge Currently Available
While you can still use traditional options to complete a cold plunge, such as taking a cold shower or filling a bath with ice water, you also have more sophisticated options at your disposal as well, to make the process easier and a little more enjoyable.
Specially designed cold plunges, ice barrels, and ice bath tubs eliminate much of the hassle and mess involved, allowing you to fill the receptacle and get it to the correct temperature as easily as possible, while also making the experience as comfortable as can be expected with such an activity.
Those who don’t like the idea of sitting in a tub of cold water at home can also go to a spa, to make use of professionally operated cold therapy options.
These include freezer rooms, cryo machines, and various versions of traditional cold water therapy, as well as a range of other methods.
Why Do People Use Ice Baths?
Ice baths in the modern day are used for a number of different benefits.
Many people also use ice baths and cold plunges as a way of dealing with edemas, as the cold can help to bring down the swelling and speed up recovery.
Perhaps their most common use is by people involved in strenuous workouts or sports. They will often take an ice bath or cold plunge after a session, at it helps them to reduce post workout inflammation, muscle pain, spasms, and tenderness.
Researchers conducting some of the most recent studies are also discovering that ice baths can also be a useful therapeutic tool for people who suffer from nerve problems. Particular study has been done to show that a cold plunge can stimulate the vagus nerve.
There are also times where patients that have been diagnosed with COPD are recommended to use cold baths in order to help relieve their symptoms and improve the condition.
Beyond these, there are various other benefits that can be obtained from taking a cold plunge or ice bath.
These include improving circulation and the health of your vital organs and systems, improving the quality of your skin and hair, easing the symptoms of various medical conditions and much more.
Cold Plunge Safety Concerns
While the technology and use of cold plunges has evolved over time, so too has the issue of safety surrounding the process.
During the early years of its usage, people could experience issues such as hypothermia or frostbite, as not enough was known about cold therapy for it to be totally safe.
In modern times, we have obtained a great enough understanding of cold plunges to know how long to stay in one and at what temperature, to ensure we have a safe and effective experience.
That said, it is still possible to put yourself at risk if you don’t follow the guidelines.
It is also a good idea to have someone with you the first few times you use a cold plunge, just in case you faint from the shock of the cold, which could cause a range of issues, which includes drowning.
Cold plunges and ice baths are a great way to improve both your health and physical performance, the science of which has been tested and expanded over thousands of years.
With a basic cold plunge being such an easy to replicate process, it is something anyone can give a try for themselves.
Even if you don’t have the confidence to simply jump in a cold bath or shower, you are lucky enough to have modern luxuries to help you out.
From spas to home cold plunges, you have a number of choices that will make the practice easier to perform and bare than it was for our ancestors.
Now that you have a more complete understanding of the history of cold plunges, you will hopefully now be a little more confident with them, both in the level of results they can induce, as well as in your ability to simply give them a try in the first place.
After all, if it is an activity that has been good enough for some of the greatest minds in human history, surely it will be good enough for you too.
Dr. Ahmed Zayed holds a bachelor’s degree in medicine from Alexandria university and is a practicing plastic surgeon. He’s our expert on all things nutrition, medicine, rehabilitation, and flexibility. Dr.Ahmed has been a medical content writer for more than 11 years and his work reached top publications such as the HuffingtonPost