We’ve long believed that ice is our friend; that ice will expedite our body’s healing process and that ice chips and frigid dips are something akin to a miracle cure-all for pain and soreness. If you twist your ankle or walk into a door, you are told to apply ice to the injured area in order to speed healing. The reason you do this is that the cold helps constrict blood vessels and thereby reduces swelling, but could you be doing more harm than good? Are you really speeding healing or are you maybe… gasp!… slowing it down??
Okay, we fully understand that calling into question the sacred practice of applying ice to injury could be considered blasphemy by many trainers and physical therapists. Still, it’s worth a critical look. Certainly there can be no doubt that putting ice on a painful injury is effective to slow swelling and ease pain, at least temporarily. Corner Cutmen will apply an End-Swell - the “eye iron” - to a fighter’s face and forehead to try to keep swelling limited so her sight is not affected and so that she’s less focused on any accompanying pain. And this surely makes sense for a short term remedy, especially in the context of competition, but when it comes to the extensive use of icing for recovery, serious questions arise.
Think of an injury as a highway auto accident. You need to get the wreckage cleaned off the road to allow the oncoming traffic to pass by. But as more congestion builds up, emergency and tow vehicles will have an even harder time reaching the scene, making matters worse. You’re not going to signal cars to slow down, you’re going to wave them to move along. Same goes for dealing with an injury - you want to keep things moving in order to get everything back to normal as quickly as possible.
Any time you have an injury or soreness your body immediately goes to work to repair the damage. As the healing is happening, the damaged muscle area gets gunked up with scar tissue that needs to get flushed out. However, when you apply cold to the affected area you are, in fact, reducing the bloodflow to the area. While there is some value in this in the beginning stages of an injury, by preventing new gunk from collecting, your body is also hindered in being able to clean out and restore the injured area.
The main theory driving the relatively new stance on icing revolves around the idea that inflammation is actually a good thing. The process of inflammation is your body’s natural response to injury by introducing special hormones through the bloodstream to the affected area that promote healing. And while the swelling caused by inflammation is painful and annoying, rest assured that good things are happening and you should mostly let them happen.
Now you may say, “okay, but what about the RICE method?” Well interestingly, the doctor who coined the term RICE, which is an acronym for the healing prescription of Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation, was Dr. Gabe Mirkin. Dr. Mirkin came up with that clever term nearly 40 years ago, however today he acknowledges that both rest and ice should be limited, although not eliminated, as part of injury recovery with more emphasis placed on active recovery.
And when you have intense soreness from exercise, you’re not necessarily “injured”, but simply suffering from tiny tears in your muscles tissue, also known as micro traumas. Many athletes not only ice injuries, but will use icing methods, sometimes quite outlandish methods, in the quest to speed up post-workout recovery. Today it is well known that these cryotherapies are effective at numbing pain with little clinical proof of any other restorative benefit.
An ice bath is a terrifying experience for the uninitiated and will certainly be very stimulating, but will probably not stimulate your recovery. So maybe skip it unless it’s something you really enjoy!
Any time we have any injury we look for ways to proactively aide recovery. Are you really doing any harm by icing an injury? Likely not, however you may be doing more to “retro-deactivate” your healing so maybe save the bags of ice for your post-workout smoothie instead.