Research Questions the Practice of Icing a Minor Injury

By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap's Sports Science Expert


With the Spring sport season off to a fast start, the aches and pains of early training are starting to appear for our young athletes. Muscles that haven’t been put to the test for several winter months combined with more physical play often sends kids home with soreness and minor injuries. Traditional advice has usually been to start with ice packs on the injured area to bring the swelling down and ease the pain. However, a new report out of Australia questions the use of ice in the overall treatment of muscle injuries.

Let’s start with the remedy we’ve heard for years, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation, better known as RICE. Giving the injured area time to heal is the first step along with applying ice or cold packs to where it hurts, especially if there is swelling. The cold temperatures constrict the blood vessels preventing blood from pooling in the damaged area. Using a compression wrap and raising the injured area also slows down blood flow, which can reduce swelling.

However, researchers from the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at Queensland University of Technology in Australia recently took another look at this long-standing practice of RICE, especially the icing process and its effect on the overall repair process.

Within hours after a muscle injury, new blood vessel formation, known as angiogenesis, begins the healing process of muscle regeneration. While ice will reduce the swelling and pain of the damaged area, it may also slow down or halt the body’s natural recovery by cutting off the required blood flow.

Jonathan Peake, an exercise physiologist at Queensland, has been studying the effects of icing for several years. Last year, he presented a study at the annual conference of the American College of Sports Medicine that reported on the use of ice baths after a strenuous workout among athletes. One group took an ice bath after every training session hoping to reduce soreness and inflammation while another group just did a standard warm-down exercise. Three months later, muscle growth in the non-icing group was significantly higher than in the icing group.

Last month, he presented another study at the Experimental Biology Meeting that looked at muscle recovery after an injury rather than just soreness. Two groups of lab rats with thigh contusions were given different post-injury treatment, icing and no-icing. After 3, 7 and 28 days of healing, the amount of muscle regeneration was significantly slower in the rats that had been iced right after injury.

"These findings challenge the practice of using ice to treat muscle injuries," the researchers wrote. “Practitioners should therefore reconsider how they use treatments such as icing and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to manage acute soft tissue injuries.”

For weekend athletes who don’t necessarily need to get back in the game the following week, RICE will reduce swelling and help with the pain. But, for competitive athletes who have a whole season ahead of them, more movement without icing is actually recommended to let the body begin its natural healing process sooner.

"Mobilizing the limb will help to stimulate blood flow to the muscle, which will aid the regeneration process," said Peake.

As with any medical advice, consult your family physician for the best treatment.

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Dan Peterson is a recovering sports dad who is fascinated with sports science research, skill development and the athlete’s brain. He has written over 400 science-based articles across the Web and consults with parents, coaches and young players to help them understand the cognitive side of sports. You can visit him at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental and at @DanielPeterson.

Release Date: May 11 2015

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