We all know when you have any aches, pains or injuries, you’re supposed to ice the area, right? Wrong!
For some reason, we’ve all grown up here in the US being told we should apply ice to any and all injuries. Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, this does not seem to be good advice.
But icing helps with inflammation, doesn’t it?
The original theory behind icing was that it must help healing since it reduces inflammation. Let’s look at this concept a bit closer.
Inflammation (or swelling), whether acute or chronic, is the body’s natural response to injury or infection. This swelling is caused by the body sending more blood and healing chemicals to the site. Without this, the healing process would take a very long time.
For acute injuries, reducing the swelling through ice simply reduces blood flow (and thus the healing chemicals) to the area, which in turn decreases healing rates. For chronic inflammation, icing may temporarily reduce inflammation, but ten or twenty minutes later, the inflammation will be right back; all icing may do is provide very temporary pain relief.
Icing slows down blood flow and tightens up muscles, neither of which is what we want!
Is there any research on this?
There has been some research on icing over the years. At best, research shows very mixed results, although most research shows no real benefit. In fact, more and more research in recent years actually shows that icing instead slows down the healing process, while also making it more likely to re-injure the affected area later.
Even Gabe Mirkin, who famously coined the term RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation), no longer recommends ice!
[Some interesting research links are provided at the end of this blog.]
If I don’t ice my injury, what should I do?
First, make sure you see a medical specialist to rule out anything more serious, such as a broken bone.
A new term that is being adopted more and more is MCE, which stands for Move, Compress, Elevate.
Move the injured area when you can, when it is safe, and when it does not cause too much pain. Compress the area when you can, using cloth, bands or other mechanical methods. Elevate the area when you can. This kind of compression and elevation helps to reduce swelling without affecting the healing process.
And finally, see your acupuncturist! Acupuncture and liniments both help greatly with the healing process (we love Demon Strength Battle Balm for the first few days of an acute injury!).
Overview of effectiveness in clinical studies
Topical icing delays recovery from exercise injuries
Overview finding insufficient evidence for icing