Contrast therapy and intramuscular temperature in the human leg

J Athl Train. 1994 Dec;29(4):318-22.


Contrast therapy, although having a long history of use in sports medicine and physical therapy, remains insufficiently researched. We investigated the thermal effects of contrast therapy on intramuscular temperature. We randomly assigned 28 college students to either a control or a contrast group, eight women and six men per group. We shaved and cleansed a 4- x 4-cm area of skin over the right medial calf and inserted a microprobe to a depth of 1 cm below the skin and subcutaneous fat in the center of the gastrocnemius. Each control subject immersed the treatment leg in a hot whirlpool (40.6 degrees C) for 20 minutes. Each contrast subject first immersed the treatment leg in a hot whirlpool (40.6 degrees C) for 4 minutes then into a cold whirlpool (15.6 degrees C) for 1 minute. Contrast subjects repeated this sequence three additional times. We recorded intramuscular temperatures every 30 seconds over the entire treatment time for both groups. The control group had a temperature increase of 2.83 +/- 1.14 degrees C over the 20-minute treatment. The contrast group temperature increased 0.39 +/- 0.46 degrees C from baseline to the end of the treatment. The largest temperature change from the end of one contrast immersion to the end of the next was only 0.15 +/- 0.10 degrees C. None of the differences between the end of one immersion to the end of the next were significant. Conversely, all differences between the same time periods in the control group had significant temperature increases. Apparently contrast therapy, as studied, is incapable of producing any significant physiological effect on the intramuscular tissue temperature 1 cm below the skin and subcutaneous tissue. We recommend that further research be done to examine the effects of longer periods in both the hot and cold environments on the intramuscular temperature of the human leg. Further investigation of intra-articular or peri-articular temperature change produced by contrast therapy should also be undertaken.