Cryotherapy is an effective treatment for acute sports injury to soft tissue, although the effect of cryotherapy on exercise-induced muscle damage is unclear. The aim of this study was to assess the effects of cold water immersion on the symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage following strenuous eccentric exercise. After performing a bout of damage-inducing eccentric exercise (eight sets of five maximal reciprocal contractions at 0.58 rad x s(-1)) of the elbow flexors on an isokinetic dynamometer, 15 females aged 22.0+/-2.0 years (mean +/- s) were allocated to a control group (no treatment, n = 7) or a cryotherapy group (n = 8). Subjects in the cryotherapy group immersed their exercised arm in cold water (15 degrees C) for 15 min immediately after eccentric exercise and then every 12 h for 15 min for a total of seven sessions. Muscle tenderness, plasma creatine kinase activity, relaxed elbow angle, isometric strength and swelling (upper arm circumference) were measured immediately before and for 3 days after eccentric exercise. Analysis of variance revealed significant (P < 0.05) main effects for time for all variables, with increases in muscle tenderness, creatine kinase activity and upper arm circumference, and decreases in isometric strength and relaxed elbow angle. There were significant interactions (P<0.05) of group x time for relaxed elbow angle and creatine kinase activity. Relaxed elbow angle was greater and creatine kinase activity lower for the cryotherapy group than the controls on days 2 and 3 following the eccentric exercise. We conclude that although cold water immersion may reduce muscle stiffness and the amount of post-exercise damage after strenuous eccentric activity, there appears to be no effect on the perception of tenderness and strength loss, which is characteristic after this form of activity.