Ice Packs For Injuries May Be Obsolete

Medical science for the past several decades has advised athletes with sprained and torn muscles to put them on ice by using packs, bags, gels, cooling machines and other methods of keeping things cold. This form of physical therapy is called “cryotherapy” and until recently has been a much used tool by physical therapists working with athletes.

Cryotherapy became significantly popular in the 1980’s, when any and every injury was subjected to what was thought to be the magical curative power of ice. As with all institutions, medical science is prone to developing automatic habits without really taking a close look at the actual results, even when they’re less than stellar. Such was the case with cryotherapy until recent research began to emerge showing that it didn’t improve injuries. In fact, it’s been shown that for severe injuries cryotherapy may actually slow down the healing process.

Over the past 20 years science has become more advanced in its understanding of the physiology behind tissue injury and repair. This new knowledge has revealed that the body actually becomes inflamed for a very good reasons when muscles or tendons are injured. Inflammation can be attributed to the survival of our earliest ancestors. However, there is a good kind of inflammation and bad kind. The good sort of inflammation is confined to the area that’s injured and plays an instrumental role in healing. The bad kind is the sort that spreads throughout entire systems of the body with the potential of causing arteriosclerosis. 

Ice packs do have an effect on the pain resulting from injury to muscles and tendons. The problem is that over time the ice changes how the blood flows through the injured area, and disrupts the body’s chemical healing process. When a muscle is injured, chemicals are released to guide the correct type of white blood cells to the damage so that they can begin to conduct the chemical traffic that repairs the injury. Tiny new vessels, capillaries, actually grow up in the injured area to facilitate more blood flow which prepares the way for new collagen formation, which adds stability to the wound. All of these healing processes are made possible through inflammation. 

The logic which guided medical science to put ice on torn muscles was rooted in the idea that swelling needed to be alleviated. It is now understood that gentle flexing of the damaged area pushes accumulated fluid that is not needed out of the muscles in the direction of the heart.

As cryotherapy is increasingly understood to be ineffective, it is slowly being replaced by massage, analgesic menthol rubs, kinesiologic tape, pulsed ultrasound, low-level laser therapy, and exercises. 

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Used under Creative Commons Licensing courtesy of Mike Licht