Ice has long been hailed as the go-to treatment to heal pain, soreness and prevent swelling at the onset of the injury.
It's a pretty universal practice. Within seconds after a collision, or when a player gets hit by a ball, every parent and coach is scrambles to find the nearest ice cubes to place on the injured area. All in the name of reducing swelling and pain.
This is where we get it wrong. The truth is, swelling is a good thing. Swelling, and the subsequent inflammation, are good and healthy responses to trauma. It is the first part of the healing process.
Immediately after an injury, blood vessels dilate, and fluid accumulates. This fluid is full of blood loaded with fresh oxygen, white blood cells, and other nutrients to help nourish the damaged tissue. And helps get rid of the accumulating waste products. This increased swelling and activity result in inflammation.
Now, we've all heard that inflammation is the root of all evil in the body. Virtually every chronic disease is closely related to and has deep ties to inflammation. While this is true, inflammation can also be a great thing and is necessary for health.
When inflammation sticks around too long, that's when it becomes a problem. Chronic inflammation can cause various types of pain and even breakdown of tissue. And that's where ice is the good guy. Ice helps combat chronic inflammation. The cold constricts the blood vessels, helping to squeeze all the junk out of the area to be processed through the rest of the body. Putting cold on acute inflammation (right after your athlete gets hit by the ball) prevents the new, healthy stuff from coming in. On the flip side, when that fluid has worn out its welcome and has become stagnant, cold therapy can be used to squeeze and be push out the waste profit-filled fluid to be processed by the rest of the body.
With that in mind, we can see that inflammation is an amazingly healthy response to soft tissue damage. It's the first of three steps to soft tissue healing. Without an efficient inflammatory response to injury, we can prolong recovery and even worsen the damage already done to the injured site.
Putting ice on your athletes' boo-boo is, of course, a well-intended gesture, but it's actually the last thing we should do. Reducing the temperature to a muscle or joint will constrict the surrounding blood vessels, choking the injured site from its much-needed nutrition supply to begin the healing process. Despite the good intentions behind it, putting ice onto newfound pain actually makes things worse, potentially allowing further damage to occur.
You can carry this logic to working out too. Exercise induces trauma to the muscles worked. Lifting weights temporarily swell the involved muscles. Arnold Schwarzenegger popularized this term as the coveted "pump". The body recognizes the concentrated exercises as a small injury and sends increased blood flow to the area to help quickly begin healing it, and mitigating further damage. To prevent further damage, the body rebuilds muscles to be bigger and stronger, which is how exercise makes muscles bigger.
So What Should We Do?
As parents and coaches, we can be very protective of our kids, and their health and safety are our top priority. This isn't an article telling our kids to rub some dirt on it and shake it off. Every injury should have the appropriate medical attention, and every injury should be taken seriously.
However, when the injuries are clearly only going to result in a couple of tears and maybe a bump or a bruise, we shouldn't be reaching for ice to treat it. Swelling is scary and painful, but it isn't a bad thing. Let it happen, and worry about putting ice on it later if you must.
The research isn't conclusive about when or even if we should use cold to treat an injured site. Ice has a slight numbing effect, which can be effective for temporarily reducing pain. So, my general recommendation is to only look at using ice until s