History of the Ice Bath

Man smiling in an ice bath

In recent years, athletes and non-athletes alike have made ice bathing into a sort of cultural phenomenon. This newfound popularity on the subject has led to an increasing number of studies and research centered around the topic as we try to discover the full benefits of a hearty cold plunge. While these studies will undoubtedly uncover valuable information for our present era of time, it may also be worth looking far into the past for answers.

Though it may seem like a relatively modern trend, the idea of ice bathing has survived through centuries and across cultures, leaving a sort of trail of breadcrumbs throughout history. From Ancient Egypt to the modern-day Olympics, cold water has played a prominent part in humanity, filling many roles.

This article will take you through some of the most influential historical uses of ice baths, as well as how these theories have been adopted into what we know today as cold water therapy, cold plunging, and ice baths! 

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Early Ideas

The origin of ice bathing is the subject of speculation, with claims from many different eras of history. However, cold water therapy could not have developed without first learning about the medical and physical benefits of cold in general. In particular, early Ancient Egyptian and Greek theories gave a great starting point for the evolution of cold therapy.

Egyptian Cold Therapy

The journey to modern ice baths begins around 3,5000 BCE, in one of the earliest known medical treatises, the Edwin Smith Papyrus. This papyrus outlined specific medical procedures and theories, notably including the use of cold applications for skin irritation. Not only does this represent an early understanding of the therapeutic use of cold, but it also shows an early shift from “magic and prayer” as a healing tool. 

It’s All Greek To Me

Jumping forward in time and to a different continent, we find an equally influential theory developed by Hippocrates in Ancient Greece. His theory centers around the idea of “humors,” or particular liquids within the body, that controlled a person’s health. A disease occurred when these liquids were out of balance, and among the various treatments he proposed, cold played a significant factor. Cold water would be prescribed for high fevers, and snow was used on open wounds to stop the bleeding. Though his theories are a far cry from our modern understanding of health, he helped spark more of an interest in cold as medicine. 

Making Strides

It wasn’t until the 16th and 17th centuries that water baths came into style, and even then, cold baths weren’t very common. During this era, personal hygiene became a point of emphasis for many cultures, which led to the creation of “spa towns” and “bath towns.” These towns became a hot destination, as the waters were said to have healing powers. 

The New “Ice Age”

Cold bath usage changed, however, around the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 18th century, ice-cold water started creeping its way into medicine. Notably, William Cullen, a Scottish physician in the early 18th century, began to prescribe various levels of cold water immersion in order to treat different ailments on the body. These cold baths could be any size, from full-body to foot sized. Meanwhile, a French army surgeon named Baron de Larrey began to pack limbs in ice before amputation to numb the pain and make the treatment more bearable. 

In the 19th century, many people lauded the benefits of ice baths, both for hygiene and often for treating fevers. When people were in the worst of their fevers, it was often the practice to lower them into an ice bath until their sweating turned to shivering. The ice bath continued to evolve from that point until recent years when it became a staple of sports medicine.

The Modern Ice Bath

Thankfully, our understanding of ice baths has increased by leaps and bounds since the time of Hippocrates and Napoleon. On the physical side, we now have a somewhat in-depth idea of what cold water can do to our bodies, and we are just starting to scratch the surface of how ice bath benefits our mental health.

So, What Does an Ice Bath Do? 

We’re learning more and more each day, but what we know so far is pretty exciting. Ice bathing after an intense workout can provide some incredible relief for muscle soreness and possibly lead to improved performance in the long term, as the low temperatures help reduce inflammation in the body. A quick cold plunge can also reduce swelling and tissue breakdown and improve blood flow. This is all thanks to the interaction between cold water and our brains. 

When you enter cold water, your blood vessels constrict to protect your vital organs. Simultaneously, your Central Nervous System (CNS) starts to produce a hormone and neurotransmitter called norepinephrine. Norepinephrine helps with blood vessel constriction and boosts levels of energy, attention, and focus in the brain! 

Plunge 

At Plunge, we’re excited to be a part of the newest era of ice bathing and cold plunging! We know that it’s more than just a tool for your body, and we want to share cold water therapy with the world. Check out our blog for all the basics, from how long to ice bath (2-5 minutes), to proper ice bath temperature and more.