Monday, November 24, 2014

To Ice or Not to Ice?

There has been debate in the media recently about the effectiveness of icing after injury. Questions regarding the correct application of icing are also often posed in the clinic, so I thought we could chime in on the topic.
This is an exerpt from a research paper completed by our recent Kinesiology Co-Op student, Katherine (Katy) Moes:

"Cryotherapy, or the application of ice to an injured area, is a treatment commonly used by both clinicians and the general public. However, there has been some recent debate regarding the true efficacy of this treatment. The purpose of this report was to examine the relevant literature on this topic, working towards an evidence-based protocol for administering cryotherapy to individuals in a clinical setting. This report specifically examined cryotherapy as it pertains to members of the general adult population who have sustained acute soft-tissue injuries.
The literature reported that there is sound physiological theory explaining why cryotherapy may be effective. It may induce vasoconstriction, reducing blood flow to the area and thereby reducing swelling and edema. It also may reduce pain and muscle spasms. However, the literature did not show cryotherapy to have a significant effect on the healing process. The research also did not produce a consensus on the optimal frequency, duration or type of cryotherapy application.
Despite the lack of consensus and significant experimental findings, cryotherapy has been anecdotally shown to be effective. The best recommendation this project can offer is to apply ice to an injured area as soon as possible after the injury occurs, for sessions of 10-20 minutes with full re-warming time between sessions. In order to confidently state that cryotherapy has a significant effect on the rehabilitation of acute soft-tissue injuries, many more high-quality studies would be needed."

For me the take home from Katy's research is that there is no scientific evidence that icing works to help an injury heal more quickly. There is also no concensus on appropriate icing parameters. I have had one colleague recommend its use for as little as 4-6 hours post injury based on recent findings, as opposed to the traditional recommendation of 24-48 hours. Although the theory that icing helps decrease inflammation seems sound, I have also heard the theory that long term icing may actually decrease the lymphatic system's ability to reduce local fluid. And then there is the question as to why we think we need to reduce inflammation anyway. It is an important step in the healing process! (see another colleague's indepth blog on this topic

Take home? If icing helps reduce discomfort, by all means go ahead and apply it immediately after injury (10-20 minutes with complete warming between sessions for a maximum of 24 hours after injury)... just don't expect it to speed up your recovery!

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  1. Thank you so much for posting about this. People always love to give you advice about this sort of thing and they are always the people who have no clue what they are talking about. Everyone seems to think that they are an expert in medicine if they have ever gotten a swollen ankle. I appreciate you writing this here.

    Denis Hightower @ Pittsburgh Cryotherapy

  2. Thank you for your comment. I try to answer questions we get on a regular basis in the clinic with the most updated research possible. The answer to this question seems to always be changing!

  3. Thank you very much for this useful article. I like it. Massage ball for pain relief