To Ice, or Not to Ice: Are You Secretly Hindering Your Recovery From Injury?
And while an ice pack or two can certainly help minimize pain, recent studies have created growing doubts as to whether this actually reduces recovery time, or simply slows down the body’s natural healing abilities, forcing patients to stay on the mend for unnecessarily longer periods of time.
There’s no doubt about it; bruises are a part of life. Whether it’s simply going about your day or engaging in a high-impact sport, chances are you’re going to end up with a bruise or two. Known medically as “contusions,” bruises are one of the most common types of injuries sustained by people across all walks of life. However, despite being so universal, very little definitive research has been done on how the human body heals from a bruise or whether treatments such as ice are actually helping or hindering your recovery.
In fact, it is the common nature of bruises that has made them so difficult to study in the past. Since someone can receive a bruise (or other type of muscle injury) from activities as varied as being tackled while playing football to stubbing a toe while getting out of bed, it can be difficult for researchers to determine whether the body’s reaction is universal across all humans, or specific to how the injury was sustained. As a result, doctors will take the broad treatment approach of slapping an ice pack on the bruise itself to help reduce swelling, and tell patients to minimize activity to prevent re-injury. Inflammation decreases to the naked eye, the injury looks better, and that is considered to be good enough for all parties involved.
In 2015, a group of researchers at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology decided to study the role ice and inflammation played in the process of recovery from injury. They believed that the goal of treating contusions shouldn’t be to simply reduce swelling or pain, but instead to speed up recovery.
The experiment involved monitoring two separate groups of rats that had both sustained muscle bruises. The control group was allowed to heal without any intervention, while the experimental group was given ice within five minutes of the injury for an interval of 20 minutes. This was observed and repeated over the course of several days. The resulting data has called into question everything that was previously believed to be correct when it comes to treating muscle injuries.
When a muscle is injured through physical exertion (like weightlifting) or physical contact (like a bruise), the body’s response is to cause swelling and redness at the site. Highly specialized cells, called “Macrophages,” flood the injured region and start the process of removing cellular debris, which is necessary for healing to begin. These macrophages are part of the body’s initial response to muscular damage, and as they begin to collect near the injury, swelling occurs. A short time later, the body begins to regenerate new blood vessels (angiogenesis) to provide nutrients to the area, and the road to recovery begins.
During the experiment, it was observed that although there were a higher numbers of inflammatory cells at the injury site in those rats that had been treated with ice, creation of new blood vessels was much slower to begin. As a result, it took almost 28 days for the icing group to finally catch up to the non-icing group in terms of regenerating muscle fibers and angiogenesis. This raised the possibility that by using ice immediately after an injury was sustained, recovery time had actually been increased. Ice, long considered to be the first step in healing, was shown to potentially slow down the process instead.
Although the effectiveness of ice in reducing recovery time is being called into question, it still has a role in the process of coming back from an injury. Pain management is a critical part of recovery, and sometimes an ice pack is an easy, natural alternative to stronger pain medications and their potential side effects. It can also help ease those minor post-workout aches that are common from running, biking, or swimming.
The long held belief that ice is the cure-all for muscle injuries might be ending. As research into the body’s natural healing mechanisms continues, new approaches to treating soft-tissue injuries are sure to develop. And although doctors have long held the view that swelling is something to be avoided, the findings of the team at the Queensland University of Technology show that a little inflammation may not always be a bad thing.
While the best approach to treating an injury is to prevent it in the first place, there are a few helpful tricks that are an excellent way to boost your body’s natural recovery process, and quickly get you back on your feet . When used 48 hours after the initial injury, heat and muscle stimulation can help increase the flow of blood to the injury and, in the process, shorten your downtime. Heating packs, stretching, and even massages are a great way to promote blood flow and minimize pain. Learn how these 5 Body Hacks can help decrease inflammation, pain and promote healing, all while helping your body perform like the machine it is.