Do I need to use an ice pack?
October 18, 2023
Using ice for pain relief has been a standard practice since 1978 when Dr Gabe Mirkin coined the term RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). Nowadays, if you ask a Physiotherapist about ice you might see them hesitate before answering on its efficacy. Why? Because the original doctor came out in 2011 and said he was wrong about ice, and its benefits.
Where ice packs began…
Ice was initially prescribed as acute injury management for 3 reasons. It could give pain relief provided you held it in one spot for 20 minutes; it was also thought to prevent and reduce swelling and to keep inflammation away. But is this actually a good thing?
Cryotherapy, Inflammation and Healing
Inflammation is the very first step in any tissue healing process. It’s that first part of your injury where you feel heat, see redness and potentially swelling around the injured site. Your capillaries (blood vessels) are opening up and allowing more blood to flow into the area so your heroic white blood cells can begin the healing process.
In order for your tissue to heal – whether it’s a muscle tear, ligament strain, bruise, fracture or anything else, you will always have some degree of inflammation to begin that healing process. There is a firm biological rule in that without inflammation, those tissues won’t heal properly.
With this knowledge, researchers have begun exploring whether the application of an ice-pack after injury can delay the heling process and what the long-term effects are. The results show there is some delay in healing but they don’t know if it’s enough to have a long-term effect.
Ice-baths have always been a point of topic around are they good or bad. For the most part, they are great, but just remember that ice-baths and using an ice-pack for an injury are not the same thing. There are many benefits from using an ice-path either first thing in the morning or after a game and if you enjoy doing these then you should. As long as the reason is for improving your own health or recovery after exercise. If you are injured, this is the time (as in the above section) to probably avoid an ice-bath.
The bottom line…
The best advice from a medical perspective currently, is you may use ice-packs for 10 minutes if injured as this will help with pain relief, but using it for longer than 10-20 minutes may impact the inflammatory process. Inflammation in most cases is a good thing! If you have been experiencing pain for longer than 2-3 days, it is always best to get it thoroughly assessed as it may have more sinister repercussions.
If you are sore from a knock, joint sprain or muscle strain AND can tolerate the pain, try to manage initially without an ice-pack. Should the pain become unbearable, then use the ice-pack. If you are unsure as to how or when you should use an ice-pack, or indeed the management of any injury, please contact our team of physios at Instinct Health for an opinion!
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