Background: Cold-water face immersion (FI) is known to produce physiological changes, including bradycardia, by stimulating the parasympathetic system. However, other factors such as sympathetic activity, intrapleural pressures, and changes in chemical mediators may also contribute to these changes.
Methods and results: Eight healthy volunteers underwent a series of experiments designed to observe the effects of FI on heart rate and its variability, as detected using wavelet transformation. Each subject was instructed to bend over and put the entire face into an empty basin with and without breathing (protocols 1 and 2, respectively), and then perform FI in warm-water (protocols 3 and 4, respectively) and cold-water (protocols 5 and 6, respectively) while breathing and breath holding. Change in the R-R interval with FI was only significantly greater for protocol 6 than for the control procedure (protocol 1). Also, changes in the natural logarithm of high-frequency power with FI were significantly greater for protocols 5 and 6 than the protocol 1.
Conclusions: Bradycardia associated with cold-water FI is mainly attributed to cardiac vagal activity, which is independent of both the change in body position caused by bending over a basin and breath holding.