The Truth About Ice for Muscle Recovery

June 01, 2017
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By Tony Bonvechio, February 23, 2017

For many, it’s second nature to slap an ice pack or bag of frozen peas on an injury. It’s even likely your doctor recommended that you “RICE” an injury. This acronym that stands for “rest, ice, compression and elevation” has been the go-to post-injury prescription for nearly 40 years.

But does ice really help the healing process? Believe it or not, there’s no existing research to show that it helps reduce inflammation or enhance healing of damaged tissues. In fact, in the British Journal of Sports Medicine stated: “Ice is commonly used after acute muscle strains but there are no clinical studies of its effectiveness.”

What’s more, Dr. Gabe Mirkin, the man who coined the term RICE in 1978, the “R” and “I” in his protocol, saying that, “it appears that both ice and complete rest may delay healing instead of helping.”

When you go out for a long run or do a tough workout at the gym, you get sore. Your muscles sustain damage, and a small amount of inflammation occurs to help your muscles heal. (Remember, inflammation is your immune system’s response to an injury and is a natural part of healing.) The soreness will go away over a few days, but it’s human nature to want to do something about that tired, achy feeling, so many people slap an ice pack on their throbbing muscles.

Ice can certainly make you feel better. It numbs the sore area by reducing nerve conduction velocity, which means that pain signals between your muscles and your brain slow down so you don’t feel as sore. Studies have shown that even people with chronic pain feel better after using ice or cold therapy.

Remember, ice only dulls the pain. It doesn’t help your tissues heal, so you may be tempted to work out again before your body is ready. This false sense of security could lead to more pain down the road.

As mentioned earlier, your body needs inflammation to heal. When your body triggers an inflammatory response to muscular damage, white blood cells rush to the site of an injury to sweep away cellular debris and deliver healing nutrients. As a precaution, damaged blood vessels constrict to quarantine the injury, while surrounding vessels expand to let nutrient-rich fluid in, causing the initial swelling you experience after an injury.

This swelling reduces naturally via the lymphatic system, a map of one-way vessels that remove waste products from the body. However, the lymphatic system is passive, meaning it doesn’t work automatically. It only removes waste when muscles contract, so if you sit still and ice your muscles, waste doesn’t get removed.

Applying ice to an inflamed area actually slows down the healing process. The metabolic process described above slows to a halt and puts the brakes on the outflow of swelling and influx of healing nutrients. Essentially, ice hits the pause button on the healing process, which delays muscle recovery as demonstrated by a 2013 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

So if ice slows healing, what can we do instead to get back on our feet?

Since the lymphatic system relies on muscle activation to remove waste, light exercise and pain-free movement can jumpstart the healing process. Ever noticed how you’re naturally inclined to rub or move a muscle that’s sore? That’s because movement sparks recovery.

Instead of lounging on the couch with an ice pack, try light foam rolling or dynamic stretching through pain-free range of motion. Simply contracting and relaxing muscles around the sore ones (e.g. your calves or glutes if your hamstrings are sore) can bring the lymphatic system to life.

Recent research has shown that active recovery is effective for reducing inflammation and cellular stress post-exercise, something that many athletes have known for years. Sprinters have been using active recovery for ages in the form of light jogging to recover from all-out sprints. Many high-level runners use cross-training and short runs to prepare and recovery for longer runs. Even weight lifters and general fitness folks can benefit from active recovery to reduce soreness and fatigue.

Ice is effective for reducing pain, but it doesn’t speed up the healing process or reduce inflammation. If you want a quick, medicine-free painkiller, feel free to use ice. But if you want to get back to training as soon as possible, ice fails where active recovery succeeds.