Anyone that has played sport has heard the term ‘RICE’ – Rest – Ice – Compress – Elevate for the treatment of sporting injuries, such as strains and sprains. However, current research suggests that ice and complete rest may delay healing instead of helping.
Icing Injuries Research
Ice has been used under the assumption that it reduces swelling and inflammation. The evidence of whether ice can achieve this is mixed. However, regardless of whether ice can or cannot reduce inflammation may be irrelevant as we now know that the inflammatory process is a necessary and crucial component of proper healing.
When there is tissue damage, the immune system responds by sending inflammatory cells to the damaged tissue, this catalyses a process to rebuild, repair and heal the injured tissue.
Inflammation and Swelling Response
Swelling and inflammation are very different things. Swelling is due to bleeding at the site of the injury, and is a sign that there is an inflammatory response occurring. Whilst acute inflammation is good, prolonged or excessive swelling may result in slower blood flow at the site of the injury and less oxygen delivery to the damaged cells, as well as the surrounding health cells, which can cause secondary damage.
Furthermore, ice application may actually reduce protein synthesis, which is important for tissue healing. Therefore, using ice post intense exercise may actually impair the bodies initial healing response. This includes after gym sessions and workouts.
For this reason you should always consult a Physio in this first 24-48 hours following an injury.
Ice for Muscle Recovery
The main benefit of applying ice to an injury is to help control or reduce pain. Ice helps by decreasing nerve conduction velocity, thereby reducing the sensation of pain. This allows you to perform rehabilitation exercises and mobile the injured area, which has a secondary benefit of reducing swelling.
The second situation in which ice application may be beneficial is when you need to perform repeated efforts. This is why some athletes will apply ice between quarters, or between games when there is back to back games over a day or few days, such as tennis. This again relates back to pain management, allowing the player to continue playing in the case of muscle soreness or minor injury.
Treatment Through Physiotherapy
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Written by: Olivia Strelein
- BSc. Physiotherapy (Honours)
- BSc. Exercise and Sport Science
- Personal Trainer