I remember when I went to the nurse in high school for a medley of ailments, and it seemed like no matter what the symptom was, a pack of ice was the associated prescription. Headache? Put ice on it. Muscle pain? Put ice on it. The building was on fire? Throw ice on it. Okay, the last one was a pretty lame joke, but somehow ice became a panacea in my nurse's eyes. It seems that in the sport and exercise world, such is also the case.
Ice Baths for Recovery
|I just started watching Game of Thrones,|
and I couldn't resist using this meme...
We have evidence of the early Egyptians using early forms of cryotherapy in 2,500 BCE to treat a medley of ailments. Fast forward to 2018 and you see people immersing themselves into futuristic-looking cryotherapy chambers filled with liquid nitrogen. As you can imagine, extensive research on the subject has been done since ancient Egyptian times.
Now, one study done by Fonda and Sarabon (2013) did find that participants who utilized whole body cryotherapy reported feeling less sore than those with no intervention. While this is more qualitative rather than quantitative evidence, it does show the potential for a decrease in the perception of DOMS with cold immersion.
Hausswirth et. al. tested runners and also found a reduction in pain and subjective fatigue 24 and 48 hours after their runs in participants using cryotherapy chambers. While this is also a qualitative measurement, researchers also found an increase in strength when compared with the control group (2011).
Contrarily, Costello et. al. measured MVC (maximal voluntary contraction of a muscle) 24 hours after an eccentric exercise protocol and found no significant differences in muscle soreness in participants who were immersed in -110° C temperatures and those who weren't immersed (2012).
Overall, the current body of research does seem to suggest that cold immersion can help reduce subjective measurements of fatigue and soreness in athletic populations, but the verdict is still mixed as far as I'm concerned. Many of the measurable, physiological markers of recovery were unchanged, but the participants simply reported feeling better. My thought process is that a lot of the attributed markers of recovery are due to a placebo effect. Effectively, if you feel like an ice bath helps you feel like you're being active in the recovery process, then keep on as you were. It may not be efficacious, but it's worth a try!
Ice Baths for Treating Injury
Going back to my high school nurse who would use ice as a cure-all, many people still assume that icing is the best protocol for soft tissue injuries. Let me start by saying that ice works as an anti-inflammatory and also a vasoconstrictor (meaning your blood vessels constrict). The downside here, is that we societally regard inflammation as a negative thing, when it is in fact your body's line of defense. Inflammation is necessary to jumpstart the healing process. The more blood flow you get to an area, the quicker the repairing process can start. Gary Reinl, author of the book "Iced" which covers this topic more in-depth, notes "the inflammatory cells remove debris and recruit cytokines and other growth factors toward the injury site." As such, swelling and inflammation are not symptoms to fear or reduce in this case. He goes on to say, "In a healthy healing process, a proliferative phase consisting of a mixture of inflammatory cells and fibroblasts naturally follows the inflammatory phase. The fibroblasts build a new extracellular matrix and persist into the final phase of repair, the maturation phase, where, if all goes well, functional tissue is laid down. The key point is that each phase of repair is necessary for the subsequent phase."
Summing it All Up
Icing injuries has become a staple in workout and recovery protocols for people all across the globe for ages. As it turns out, the effectiveness as icing for both decreasing muscle soreness/damage and for aiding in the healing process of an injury seems to be unfounded. The body of research denouncing the usage of ice on both accounts seems to outweigh the papers that support its application.
I personally don't use ice in either instance, and I believe that rest, sleep and proper nutrition can be some of the most effective recovery strategies! Next time you go to jump into the ice bath or wrap an injury in a bag of ice, ask yourself why, and decide whether or not it's actually going to help you or potentially hinder you.
- Costello JT, Algar LA, Donnelly AE. Effects of whole body cryotherapy (−110°C) on proprioception and indices of muscle damage. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2012;22:190–198.
- Fonda B, Sarabon N. Effects of whole-body cryotherapy on recovery after hamstring damaging exercise: a crossover study. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2013;23:e270–e278.
- Hausswirth C, Schaal K, Le Meur Y, et al. Parasympathetic activity and blood catecholamine responses following a single partial-body cryostimulation and a whole-body cryostimulation. PLoS One. 2013;22:e72658.
- Reinl, Gary. Iced!: the Illusionary Treatment Option. Gary Reinl, 2014.
- Van den Bekerom, Michel P.J et al. “What Is the Evidence for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation Therapy in the Treatment of Ankle Sprains in Adults?” Journal of Athletic Training 47.4 (2012): 435–443. Print.