Contrast Therapy- What does the research say? February 08, 2015 16:28

What is contrast therapy?

Contrast therapy alternates temperature between hot and cold in order to reduce pain, inflammation, and improve muscle recovery. This is basically a variation or combination of cryotherapy (cold) and thermotherapy (heat) that are commonly used to treat various conditions. Usually the contrast is achieved by alternating between one tub of hot water and one tub of cold water, either using whole body tubs or small tubs that can just fit body part affected. Another way to achieve the contrast therapy is to use an ice pack and a heat pack and manually switch between the two every couple of minutes, this is a more targeted approach for a specific injury or condition. Of course you can go for the high tech option and use one of the Climaware products that can do this automatically with preset times and temperatures built right into the brace for the area you need.


Why contrast therapy?

While the research specifically for contrast therapy is limited right now, the few studies out there show that contrast therapy can provide some significant benefits. Contrast baths have been used for years in sports medicine to treat sub-acute soft tissue and joint injuries.

Faster recovery from muscle soreness and prevention of soreness (1)

Decreased muscle strength and power loss (1)

Decreased blood levels of creatine kinase (a blood marker of muscle damage) (1)

Changes in blood flow to the area (increased during hot phase and decreased during cold phase)(2)

Athletes who use contrast therapy (baths) after training/competition report less tight muscles, feeling lighter, and a feeling of mental freshness. (3)

Decreased DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) compared to warm whirlpool or passive rest (3)

How does it work?

Thermotherapy (heat)- Increases local blood flow, increases muscle elasticity, causes local vasodilation, reduces muscle spasms, and increases metabolite production (3).

Cryotherapy(cold)- Causes vasoconstriction which decreases the swelling and inflammation in the area (3). Cryotherapy also has a general analgesic effect by decreasing nerve conduction velocity and excitability (reducing how easily and quickly pain signals can be sent to the brain).

Contrast Therapy- Combines the above effects with a theoretical pumping action by causing vasodilation during the heat phase and vasoconstriction during the cold phase


(1) Contrast Water Therapy and Exercise Induced Muscle
Damage: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

(2) Changes in Lower-Leg Blood Flow During Warm-, Cold-,
and Contrast-Water Therapy

(3) Alternating hot and cold water immersion
for athlete recovery: a review