We often hear from patients that they are icing their sore muscles or injuries. Many doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, and other medical professions recommend the use of ice for just about any injury. So the following point may come as a shock to many: do not use ice!
The widespread use of ice as part of the injury recovery process is relatively new. In the late 70s, Dr. Gabe Mirkin created the acronym for people to remember the key steps to recovery: RICE. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Many know this acronym. What many don’t know is that Dr. Mirkin has since redacted the idea, citing a lot of research which shows that ice actually slows healing.
The main idea is easy to understand: if you make an area cold, the blood flow will decrease. This is effective for reducing inflammation. But the problem is that acute inflammation is actually necessary for activating the body’s immune response and starting a quick and speedy recovery. Without inflammation, the body doesn’t release certain hormones, like Insulin-like growth Factor IGF-1, which helps tissue re-grow.
Take away blood flow and you take away the body’s natural ability to heal the area. The more you use ice, the longer it takes for the body to heal and the more pain you have. The more pain you have, the more you want to use ice. It can be a vicious cycle.
Though in some very severe circumstances you may want to stop blood flow and inflammation (such as a severed limb), in the vast majority of situations this is not desirable. To get the same sort of pain relief that ice provides, without slowing the healing process, try herbal products like San Huang San, known as “herbal ice”.
Not only does using ice slow the healing process; from a Chinese medicine perspective when applied to a joint, ice will bring cold and damp deep into the joints. Cold and damp in the joints basically equals arthritis. This is why osteoarthritis is much more common in cold damp climates like Seattle or London than it is in hot dry climates like Phoenix. Some would argue that the widespread use of ice has and will continue to contribute (in addition to other factors like lack of exercise) to rising numbers of osteoarthritis.
If you really want to use ice after an injury, use it only within the first 6 or so hours for about 10 minutes and follow it with 15 minutes of heat. Once you’re past the acute stage (first day or two), use heat, which will increase circulation of blood and fluids and hasten your recovery time!