Cold therapy techniques come under hot scrutiny by researchers: ‘Overall benefits remain uncertain’

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Cold therapy has been a popular health trend in recent years, but a new review suggests it might not live up to the hype — although others disagree. 

Medical researchers from the University of Warwick in the U.K. conducted a review of nine different studies of the Wim Hof Method (WHM), a health and wellness discipline that combines cold therapy, breathing and meditation.

Although the method was found to reduce inflammation, the researchers concluded that the “quality of the studies [done on the method] is very low” and that “all the results must be interpreted with caution.”

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They also noted that the studies had small sample sizes, so they can’t be applied to the general population.

The results were published in the journal PLOS ONE on March 13.

Cold therapy has been a popular health trend in recent years, but a new review suggests it might not live up to the hype. Still, others disagree with that. (iStock)

What is the Wim Hof Method?

The Wim Hof Method is based on the philosophy and practices of Dutch athlete Wim Hof. 

The method has three pillars: cold plunging, breathing and mindset.

Previous research has shown that the method can have multiple mental and physical health benefits.

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Nicknamed “the Iceman,” Hof himself previously told Fox News Digital in an interview that a chief benefit of his method is reducing inflammation — which is a leading cause of most ailments and autoimmune diseases.

“I’m bringing my knowledge from nature through science to global health care, showing that through science — no speculation — we are able to do so much more within our physiology,” he said. 

wim hof split

The Wim Hof Method is based on the philosophy and practices of Dutch athlete Wim Hof. Fox News Digital spoke to Hof in an on-camera interview on March 27, 2023. (Angelica Stabile/Fox News Digital)

In addition to reducing inflammation, Hof also credited cold therapy with improving his mental health during a difficult time in his life.

With cold water plunging, “you open up to peace inside — and that inaugurates the healing,” he said. 

“I began to have control over my emotions,” he also said.

Findings flag limitations of studies

“The key takeaways from the review indicate [the] promising use of WHM in the inflammatory response category,” Omar Almahayni, the study’s lead researcher at Warwick Medical School, told Fox News Digital.

“However, it’s crucial to note that all studies included exhibit a high concern for risk bias, indicating the early stages of investigation into the Wim Hof Method.”

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“While some positive effects are observed, such as attenuation of inflammation, the overall benefits remain uncertain.”

The researchers uncovered many limitations of the studies they reviewed, Almahayni said.

“All the trials had a very high risk of bias due to the lack of a prior published protocol, small sample size and complexity of blinding the participants and outcome assessors to the intervention,” he said.

man ice bath

The Wim Hof Method of cold water plunging was shown to reduce inflammation in the reviewed studies. (iStock)

Psychological outcomes were also difficult to measure, the researcher noted, as they relied on subjective input in response to a questionnaire. 

“Since the participants were not blinded, it was very difficult to ensure that the answers were honest and valid to the experience,” said Almahayni.

Fox News Digital reached out to Wim Hof’s team for comment on the review. 

Experts defend cold therapy

Mark Palchak, CEO of Silient, a South Carolina-based chilled water company, was not involved in the systematic review, but noted that the findings show the clear anti-inflammatory properties of cold therapy.  

“The simple fact that inflammation-related diseases kill 3/5 of people worldwide, combined with the anti-inflammatory results from this study, suggests that the cold therapy discipline works,” Palchak told Fox News Digital.

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Cold therapy can also be beneficial for athletes, he said, helping to reduce inflammation in the joints and cartilage and aiding in post-workout recovery.  

“One of the main benefits from cold therapy our customers experience that wasn’t mentioned in the study is related to the ability to get hard things done throughout the day,” Palchak added.  

Woman stepping into ice bath

Cold therapy can be beneficial for athletes — helping to reduce inflammation in the joints and cartilage and aiding in post-workout recovery.   (iStock)

“When you force yourself into ice-cold water first thing in the morning, everything else you do throughout the day becomes materially easier. Doing hard things leads to great things.”

Dr. Peter Michael, director of regenerative orthopedics and spine at Miami Wellness, a pain relief center in Miami, Florida, previously spoke with Fox News Digital about the benefits of ice baths.

“It’s crucial for individuals to remain cautious and informed about the current state of research on the Wim Hof Method.”

Ice baths are effective at reducing inflammation in the body by constricting blood vessels and reducing blood flow to the affected area, noted Michael, who was not involved in the new U.K. study.

“Ice baths can help speed up muscle recovery by reducing soreness and fatigue after exercise,” he said.

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Cold plunges can also help increase the production of white blood cells, which are responsible for fighting off infections and diseases, the doctor added. 

Some experts also believe that ice baths can have a calming effect on the body, reducing stress and anxiety levels and triggering the release of endorphins in the brain.

More research needed, researchers say

Based on the review findings, lead researcher Almahayni called for more evidence to be gathered about the Wim Hof Method — including a larger number of participants — before it’s recommended to the public. 

Woman in ice bath

Ice baths and other forms of cold therapy aren’t for everyone — and are not considered a cure-all for medical conditions, experts agree. (iStock)

“It’s crucial for individuals to remain cautious and informed about the current state of research on WHM,” he said. 

“While there are promising indications of its benefits, more evidence is needed before making conclusive recommendations.”

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Ice baths and other forms of cold therapy aren’t for everyone and are not considered a cure-all for medical conditions, experts agree.

People considering this method should check with a health care provider before taking the plunge.

Angelica Stabile of Fox News Digital contributed to this report.

For more Health articles, visit www.foxnews.com/health.