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The Doctor Said: It's Time to Rethink Ice

A host of scientific research has made this physical therapist skeptical of the recovery staple.

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Tom Van Ornum is a Doctor of Physical Therapy in Washington, D.C., who specializes in sports medicine and performance enhancement.

Icing has never been hotter. From ice baths to cryotherapy studios, athletes are freezing their proverbial assets in myriad ways. Put more eloquently, the use of ice, or cryotherapy, for workout and injury recovery has become a commonplace procedure over the last half century. My patients and athletes regularly ask me about ice—but is it always an exerciser’s best friend?

Not exactly. The science on icing is actually a bit mixed. In fact, there has been a lack of rigorous clinical testing and research that most other medical interventions undergo before entering mainstream practice. Additionally, some new studies have shown that ice does not result in improved recovery and can potentially do more harm than good. Take a look:

The Claim: Icing minimizes inflammation/swelling
What Science Says: Ice doesn’t stop the inflammatory process, it merely delays the onset and progression. Ice reduces circulation by constricting blood vessels, thereby diminishing the influx and outflux of fluids from an area. Circulation of fluids promotes healing, and also removes some of the inflammatory compounds that can hinder performance. Do we really want to impede this process with ice after a tough workout?

The Claim: Icing decreases pain
What Science Says: Ice is well-documented to temporarily decrease pain by slowing the transmission of pain signals by the nervous system. While it can help with post workout muscle soreness, that transient pain relief comes at a cost: You'll diminish the circulation of new fluids that helps an areal heal. 

The Claim: Icing speeds up recovery from injury and exercise-induced muscle damage
What Science Says: No, it doesn’t. Recent studies from the Journal of Emergency Medicine and British Journal of Sports Medicine found that icing doesn’t improve injury recovery. Two additional studies from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning/National Strength and Condition Association and European Journal of Applied Physiology conclude that ice had no benefits in improving post-workout recovery and may actually prolong recovery. 

What To Try Instead: Instead of icing, what can be done to enhance recovery following a grueling workout?

1) Light Exercise: The day after a tough workout, try light exercise that focuses on facilitating circulation. Endurance athletes have employed this strategy for years by doing a light 20-30 minute jog the day after a long run. Avoid physically strenuous exercise, which can result in additional muscle soreness; try to incorporate some functional total-body movements, as the more muscles you can engage, the greater the circulatory effect will be.

2) Compression: Compression sleeves/products and foam rolling can provide additional mechanical stimulus the lymphatic system needs to clear away swelling without hindering muscular contractions, as ice does.

3) Contrast Baths/Showers: Since ice constricts blood vessels, it can have a small compression-like effect throughout muscles. Is this compression effect worth not getting an influx/outfux of new fluids? Probably not. But, by alternating hot and cold you can facilitate a compressive/dilatory "pumping" mechanism to increase circulation through an area.