Cold water is a vasoconstrictor, meaning it affects tissue (muscle) by closing the blood vessels. This helps decrease pain and sensation.
Hot water, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. When tissue is warmed the blood vessels open up, bringing in a fresh supply of blood that has oxygen and antibodies. This can help clear muscle spasms and any metabolites (by-products of cellular metabolism).
By jumping from a cold soak to a hot soak (and repeating the cycle 3-4 times) in rapid succession, you create a natural “pumping” action. This squeezing action in the muscles not only circulates fluid back into the tissue but also carries out metabolic wastes left behind from cellular processes happening every second. It’s a great way to speed up the recovery of an injury without actually having to touch the affected area.
Contrast bathing can also be paired with stretching or even massage to help break up adhesions (scar tissue), promote healthy healing, flexibility, and help lengthen chronically shortened muscles.
Some additional things to consider:
- Time and temperature for the treatment is going to depend on your personal tolerance. Hot water is generally defined as 100-105 degrees and cold is 55-65 degrees.
- Ice may be used in the water to help make it colder, but be careful of frostbite from clinging cubes of ice!
- Keep in mind the area you’ll be treating. For a strenuous workout, using a sauna and hot and cold pools is the answer, but for an ankle sprain, you might want to grab two 5 gallon buckets from the garage. For an additional treat, drop in some of your favorite essential oil or Epsom salt.
- Make sure you always end your treatment with the cold bath. It constricts the blood vessels one last time to “close” the area.
Also, ice packs and hot towels could help if you need a quicker solution.