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Geisinger becomes the first member of Risant Health

Planning a polar bear plunge? Talk to your healthcare provider first.

Cold water plunges are popping up everywhere. They’re on the menu at wellness studios and spas. And if you browse online, you’ll find groups of people ready to meet up for a frigid dip. This chilly encounter might be invigorating for some. But if you have a heart condition, jumping in headfirst might leave you out in the cold.

Before you test the waters, start by doing your homework.

What is cold water therapy?

“Cold water therapy involves taking a dip in chilly water, usually less than 59 degrees,” says Dr. George Ruiz, chair of cardiology at Geisinger. They can take the form of ice baths or diving into freezing water. Immersing your body in icy water can deliver a variety of health benefits, like:

  • Improving circulation
  • Boosting immunity
  • Increasing energy
  • Reducing muscle pain

That icy plunge might make you feel good. But it could have an unexpected impact on other parts of your body, like your heart and lungs.

A matter of the heart

Dunking yourself in cold water can trigger something known as the cold shock response. “When cold water hits your skin, your body releases adrenaline,” says Dr. Ruiz. “That fight-or-flight response can increase your heart rate and blood pressure.”

Increased blood pressure puts extra stress on the heart, making it work harder than usual. And for someone with a heart condition, those excess stress hormones could potentially lead to an irregular heart rhythm.

Sudden exposure to cold water can also cause your heart rate to drop. That low heart rate could make you feel lightheaded or pass out.

When in doubt, ask

Before you take the plunge, have a heart-to-heart with your healthcare provider — about your heart. Not sure where to begin? “Start by asking if your heart is healthy enough for a plunge,” says Dr. Ruiz. If it’s not, your provider may recommend alternative activities like:

  • Swimming
  • Lifting weights
  • Walking

Low-impact exercises like these can help keep you physically fit. And they can do so without taxing your body the way a cold plunge would. Your healthcare provider can work with you to build an exercise plan to help you feel your best. As for cold water therapy?

“If you have a heart condition, you might want to leave the plunges to the polar bears,” says Dr. Ruiz.

Next steps:

Learn about cardiology at Geisinger
6 heart symptoms you shouldn’t ignore
Meet George Ruiz, MD

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