Icing: There’s no injury treatment that is more ubiquitous. There’s just one problem: Icing an injury doesn’t help. In fact, it appears to interfere with the healing process.
How can this be?
We’ve all been to the doctor or physiotherapist and been told to ice an injury. Everyone has probably endured painful ice baths and made the effort to religiously ice a sprain in an effort to get back to top form in time for an important game or competition.
The truth is that icing has markedly negative effects on injury recovery. This article will explain why this is and give you five reasons to stop icing your injuries.
#1: Ice Keeps Healing Cells From Entering Injured Tissue
The theory goes that we are supposed to ice in order to reduce the inflammation that occurs in response to an injury. However, inflammation is a normal and critical part of the healing process. Ice leads blood vessels to constrict so that inflammatory cells that are involved in tissue remodeling can’t reach the injured tissue. The healing process is impeded since blood vessels will remain constricted for hours after a bout of icing.
#2: Ice Interferes With The Lymphatic System
A second factor is the swelling that surrounds an injury. Swelling occurs as waste byproducts of the inflammatory cycle accumulate around the injury. This fluid is a symbol that repair processes are doing their job, but you want the body to be able to remove it as quickly as possible.
Swelling is regulated by the lymphatic system, which relies on muscle activation to function properly. Ice limits muscle activation and interferes with the lymphatic system, causing the one-way valves to open in the wrong direction, creating more swelling.
#3: Ice Inhibits Release of Growth Factors
Inflammatory cells are designed to release insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1)—a hormone that works with growth hormone to produce tissue repair and recovery. The application of ice inhibits the release of IGF-1. This may be one reason that icing after muscle damaging training leads to slower recovery and less muscle and strength development.
#4: Ice May Impede Collagen and Tissue Alignment
As tissues rebuild following an injury, they do so in a haphazard fashion. This is a normal part of the healing process. However, the more that it can be minimized, the better when it comes to returning to injury. Ice appears to impede collagen alignment, leading to reduced recovery and slower return to function.
#5: Ice Slows Muscle Function & Nerve Firing
Dr. Gabe Mirkin, the doctor who originally came up with the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) recommendation in 1978 writes on his web site that he made a mistake. Although Mirkin stands by the recommendation for Compression and Elevation after an injury, he writes that “both Ice and complete Rest may delay healing instead of helping.”
Obviously, serious injuries require immobilization, however, activity can improve the lymphatic drainage so that waste products are more efficiently removed from the injury site. Icing can impede this process, reducing muscle function and nerve firing, essentially making you more immobilized than may be necessary.
There Is One Benefit To Ice!
Ice has is an analgesic effect, numbing an injured area so that you experience less pain and discomfort. But, the pain relief you get from ice only lasts 20 to 30 minutes and since you now know that ice has detrimental side effects on healing, it is generally not recommended.
What Should You Do Instead Of Icing Following An Injury?
The first step is to seek out professional medical care. Hopefully, you have a doctor who is up the minute on the research and is aware that icing is out!
The next step is to incorporate Compression and Elevation into your healing program, while getting the injured area moving as soon as possible. Obviously, severe injuries (such as a fracture or ligament tear) will require immobilization—we’re not suggesting you ignore your common sense!
But minor injuries such as a joint sprain may allow for slow movement, stretching, or micromovements in nearby body parts.
Finally, you want to make sure your nutrition program is on point. Here is a list of the best nutrition tips to promote injury recovery.
Bleakley, C., et al. The use of ice in the treatment of acute soft-tissue injury: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 2004. 32:251–261.
Kaminski, T., et al. National Athletic Trainers' Association position statement: conservative management and prevention of ankle sprains in athletes. Journal of Athletic Trainers. 2013. 48(4):528-45.
Meeusen, R., Lievens, P. The use of Cryotherapy in Sports Injuries . Sports Medicine. 1986. 3(6):398-414.
Mirkin, Gabe. Why Ice Delays Recovery. Retrieved 21 March 2017. http://www.drmirkin.com/fitness/why-ice-delays-recovery.html
Reinl, Gary. Iced: The illusionary Treatment Option. 2013.