Although Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (RICE) has been promoted for years as the ideal treatment for common sports injuries like muscle sprains recent studies have cast doubt on whether or not it actually helps.
In this article, you will learn:
- What happens when you ice and injury
- The potential impact of icing on recovery
- When it is appropriate to ice
What Do We Really Know About Icing
Since ice reduces the visible signs of swelling, medical professionals have often turned to it as a first line of defense. However, it’s never been clear whether icing aids healing beneath the surface of the skin.
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 to provide nutrients to the area, and the road to recovery begins.
Rather than focusing on visible signs of swelling, new research sought to determine whether icing really improved this complex process of cellular regeneration. The results bucked conventional wisdom.
In Rats, Icing Impairs Injury Recovery
In 2015, a group of researchers at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology studied the role ice and inflammation played in the process of recovery from injury. They believed the goal of treating contusions shouldn’t be to simply reduce swelling or pain, but instead to speed up recovery.
The researchers studied two groups of mice with muscle injuries. 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.
Researchers observed that although there were a higher numbers of inflammatory cells at the injury site in rats that had been treated with ice, the creation of new blood vessels slowed. As mentioned above, these new blood vessels are key to long-term healing. As a result of this slower process, 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 vascular cells.
Researchers concluded that using ice immediately after an injury may actually decrease recovery time.
Ice, long considered to be the first step in healing, was shown to potentially slow down the process instead.
Ice for Pain Only When Necessary
One thing ice is good for is reducing pain.
If you’re hurt badly enough to consider taking pain killers, but not so badly that you have to go to the ER, you might consider using ice to manage pain.
There’s no denying that pressing a cold pack on a contusion feels pretty darn good!
The idea that ice is a cure-all for muscle injuries may soon be phased out, but as research into the body’s natural healing mechanisms continues, new approaches to treating soft-tissue injuries are sure to develop.
One alternative to ice is actually heat, as is stretching, and massage.
And, of course, you should always heed your doctor’s recommendations when approaching recovery from a sports injury.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted August 2016 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Also published on Medium.