Cold Water Therapy Part 1: History and Introduction

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Cold Water Therapy Part 1: History and Introduction

Throughout human history, both water and cold have been used extensively for mental, physical, and spiritual health. With a rich history and benefits backed by modern scientific evidence, it is easy to see why cold water therapies and cold showers are the new health trend.

Take a look at the evolution of cold water therapy that has led to experimental adaptive cold showers and what they do to the body.

Cold water therapy ice bath

History of Cold Water Therapy

The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus is one of the oldest surviving medical texts created in the 1600 B.C. This text made numerous references to the use of cold as therapy.

Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC) was a Greek physician and is considered one of the most influential figures in the history of medicine. He is often credited as being the first person to document the health benefits of hydrotherapy.

Ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilisations continued to record the medicinal uses of hydrotherapy. Several texts refer to hydrotherapy as ‘the water cure’ or ‘hydropathy’ suggesting that previous civilisations already knew the benefits of water and its many applications.

The Benedictine Monks recognised the therapeutic benefits of hot springs and rebuilt the Bath Abbey in England. By the 19th century, hydrotherapy began to spread globally. In 1883 neutral bath treatments were being used extensively at Leukerbad Spa, Switzerland.

There are many texts referring to Mark Twain and how he can remember when the “cold water cure” was first talked about (1844). He was nine years old at the time. The “cold water cure” involved throwing buckets of cold water repeatedly over one’s head and then wrapping them in a sheet wet with ice water.

Sebastian Kneipp was a Bavarian priest and one of the founders of naturopathic medicine. Kneipp is most commonly associated with the “Kneipp Cure” form of hydrotherapy, which is the application of water through various methods, temperatures and pressures. The “Kneipp Cure” claimed to have many therapeutic and healing benefits.

VincenzPriessnitz was a peasant farmer from Austrian Silesia who is generally regarded as the founder of modern hydrotherapy. It’s interesting to note that he also stressed remedies such as organic food, clean air, regular exercise, rest, and clean water over conventional medicine.

As practices changed and evolved, medical records continued to reflect the healing benefits of hydrotherapy.

Temple Fay (1895-1963), former head of the Department of Neurosurgery at Temple University School of Medicine and president of the Philadelphia Neurological Society, pioneered “human refrigeration” as a treatment for malignancies and head injuries.

In 1961, Irving S. Cooper (1922-1985) was a brilliant neurosurgeon and specialised in patients with what was thought to be ‘untreatable diseases’.  He developed the first closed cryoprobe system and ushered in the modern era of cryogenic surgery.

From this brief summary, we can see that the benefits of cold + water therapies have been well documented throughout human history. The question may lie in whether the historical, anecdotal and scientific evidence is strong enough to support the practice of cold-water therapies, including cold showers. Before we get into the science and potential benefits it’s best to define some important terminology first.

cold water therapy

Introduction to Cold Water Therapy

The term Hormesis is used to define a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect such as improved health, stress tolerance (hardening), growth, or longevity results from exposure to low doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or lethal when given at higher doses. Everything (even water) can be toxic at high enough doses, however the term hormesis is often used when looking at stressors such as exercise, intermittent fasting, cold-water therapy, environmental toxins, radiation, drugs, calorie restricted diets, and psycho-emotional stressors.

Throughout this article, there will be discussions of the effects cold-water therapies can have on the central nervous system (CNS). The proposed benefits may result because of the changes that occur within the CNS. The term ‘System Wind-Up’ was presented in a paper by Michael Ridgway. Michael states that system wind-up occurs when there are “too many unhappy signals (negative signals/noxious input) resulting from unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviours.”

These unhappy signals are sent to the subconscious brain and spinal cord, which has a direct negative impact on the structures of the body. The concept of ‘system wind-up’, also commonly referred to as central sensitisation, is presented here as a consideration for why pain and suffering occur in the human body and may present as a concept for why cold showers offer a form of relief.

Cold Shock Response is the body’s physiological response to sudden cold exposure, especially cold-water immersion. Cold shock response results in varying degrees depending on the individual’s habituation experience; in other words, how experienced the individual is at being exposed to cold weather or cold water.

The physiological responses may include elevated heart rate, vasoconstriction, and elevated blood pressure, respiratory rate, and stress hormones. Less habituated subjects may notice an elevated heart rate and respiratory rate even before the cold event is experienced.

It’s worth noting that with repeated exposure to cold (water/temperature), it’s possible to undergo ‘physiological conditioning’ to reduce the cold shock response.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is another innate biological response to immersion. As the name implies, all mammals exhibit this response, even humans although to a weaker extent.  This reflex exists to extend the time that animals can survive while submerged under-water by reducing the need for respiration.

When the human face is submerged, receptors that are sensitive to cold within the nasal cavity and other areas of the face supplied by the fifth (V) cranial nerve (trigeminal nerve) relay information to the brain. This in turn stimulates the 10th cranial nerve (X – vagus nerve), which plays a vital role in relation to the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The ANS is a control system that acts (largely) at an unconscious level and regulates such bodily functions as digestion, respiratory rate, heart rate, blood pressure, urination, and reflexes such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting.

Based on this information, we can understand why initiation of the mammalian diving reflex initiates three primary changes within the body:

  • Bradycardia – Immediately upon facial contact with cold water, the human heart rate slows down by 10 to 25 percent. Slowing the heart rate is an important physiological response because it lessens the need for oxygen in the bloodstream, allowing more oxygen to be utilized by other organs.
  • Vasoconstriction in the periphery of the body reducing blood flow to the hands and feet. If cold application persists for long enough, circulation to the arms and legs will be restricted as well which, in effect, will allow a greater volume of blood to be available to the heart, brain and lungs.
  • Blood shifting – Peripheral vasoconstriction in the extremities starts as soon as the person is exposed to the cold. This has the effect of forcing blood into the thoracic organs, particularly the lungs. As the mammal dives deeper, peripheral vasoconstriction and hydrostatic pressure on the extremities continues to drive the blood shift.

There is evidence to suggest that the mammalian diving reflex is not initiated when the limbs are introduced to cold water and that mild bradycardia is caused by subjects holding their breath without submerging the face within the water. It is important to note that the physiological effects of the diving reflex increase proportionately to decreasing water temperature.

cold shower

If you’re looking to try this…A word of caution

An article from the Journal of Physiology 2012 entitled “Autonomic conflict: a different way to die during cold water immersion” looked at the potential risks associated with cold water submersion.

The authors stated that antagonistic responses of the “cold shock response” and the “diving response” may result in what they termed ‘autonomic conflict’. The result of this autonomic conflict has the potential to cause arrhythmias and in susceptible individuals has the potential to cause heart attack.

As such, if you have any predisposing health challenges it may be well worth gaining clearance from your medical doctor prior to beginning any form of cold-water therapy, including cold showers.

With that said, there is no evidence to suggest cold-water therapy is addictive or that it will have a detrimental effect on the endocrine system, although that hypothesis has been stated elsewhere on websites and blogs.

Cold Water Therapy Recommendations

Like so many forms of therapy, people are likely to respond differently to the same dose. What is being proposed in this document is the application of cold-water therapy (cold showers and/or cold immersion), which will act as a ‘thermal stress’ and hopefully provide some form of physiological, psychological, emotional and/or spiritual benefit (hormesis).


The Art is in the application!


Even the most well-adjusted person is always under some degree of physical and psychological pressure, but the degree of ‘system wind-up’ (CNS stress) will vary from person to person. As such, therapists and individuals alike will need to determine what level of ‘thermal stress’ exposure will provide benefit.

The effective dose might also change over time and therapists/individuals may need to make adjustments accordingly. In reference to time, this is referring to the time to complete a treatment course (6-12 weeks) and as a person ages over their lifespan. For example, an elderly person may respond differently to cold-water therapies when compared to a 20-year-old.

If you’re interested in trying cold water therapy, discuss it with a health professional first to see how you can customise the therapy to suit your needs.

The Pain and Dysfunction specialists at the Body Genius Institute have used cold water therapy to relieve pain and discomfort and have seen positive results in clients with a variety of issues. To book an appointment with a Body Genius practitioner give us a call on (08) 9227 6277 today.

In part 2 of this series on Cold Water Therapy we look at the effects and benefits. Read it here

2018-05-08T05:55:45+00:00 May 8th, 2018|Blog|
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