Cold water immersion (CWI) is a technique commonly used in post-exercise recovery. However, the procedures involved in the technique may vary, particularly in terms of water temperature and immersion time, and the most effective approach remains unclear. The objective of this systematic review was to determine the efficacy of CWI in muscle soreness management compared with passive recovery. We also aimed to identify which water temperature and immersion time provides the best results. The MEDLINE, EMBASE, SPORTDiscus, PEDro [Physiotherapy Evidence Database], and CENTRAL (Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials) databases were searched up to January 2015. Only randomized controlled trials that compared CWI to passive recovery were included in this review. Data were pooled in a meta-analysis and described as weighted mean differences (MDs) with 95 % confidence intervals (CIs). Nine studies were included for review and meta-analysis. The results of the meta-analysis revealed that CWI has a more positive effect than passive recovery in terms of immediate (MD = 0.290, 95 % CI 0.037, 0.543; p = 0.025) and delayed effects (MD = 0.315, 95 % CI 0.048, 0.581; p = 0.021). Water temperature of between 10 and 15 °C demonstrated the best results for immediate (MD = 0.273, 95 % CI 0.107, 0.440; p = 0.001) and delayed effects (MD = 0.317, 95 % CI 0.102, 0.532; p = 0.004). In terms of immersion time, immersion of between 10 and 15 min had the best results for immediate (MD = 0.227, 95 % 0.139, 0.314; p < 0.001) and delayed effects (MD = 0.317, 95 % 0.102, 0.532, p = 0.004).
The available evidence suggests that CWI can be slightly better than passive recovery in the management of muscle soreness. The results also demonstrated the presence of a dose-response relationship, indicating that CWI with a water temperature of between 11 and 15 °C and an immersion time of 11-15 min can provide the best results.