Sometimes simple remedies really are the best. So don’t roll your eyes next time someone mentions an icing regimen to help your minor injury. Because what might seem like an over-simplified, antiquated procedure can still do wonders—especially during ski season when the risk of injury is running high.
Neil Chasan, clinical director at Sports Reaction Center, says the acronym to remember after an acute injury is R.I.C.E—Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Each step is important, but why icing? And what exactly is happening internally?
As soon as you get injured—say, sprain your ankle—your body sends phagocytes, a type of white blood cell, to “fix” the problem. However, the phagocytes cause swelling, which ultimately interferes with the mechanics of the healing process. That’s where R.I.C.E. comes in: ice slows down blood flow, slowing the movement of the phagocytes, while compression squeezes the area to keep the white blood cells out of there. Ice also reduces the pain associated with an acute injury, and therefore should be the first treatment after the incident.
Logistically, Chasan says, the length of time you should keep the ice on the injury is dependent on what part of the body is in pain. “It takes about 10 minutes to penetrate one centimeter of skin,” Chasan says. This means if you have a sore back, it will take about 30 to 40 minutes for the ice to penetrate the deep tissue. Alternatively, if you need to ice your elbow, because it is so close to the surface, about 10 to 20 minutes should suffice.
Instead of using an ice pack, Chasan recommends using a bag with ice and water inside, and placing it right on the skin. “Ice is too cold to place right on the skin, and if it’s there for too long, it can cause frostbite,” Chasan says.
But the concept of icing can go even further.
Icing is almost a “belief system” at the Sports Reaction Center. “We don’t just recommend icing for injuries, but for prevention purposes as well.” The clinic has a program called Core Control that focuses on lowering body temperature before exercising, which prevents overheating, and actually can improve and enhance physical performance.
Chasan works with Seahawks, Sounders and Mariners’ players, and also professional athletes all around the world. As one of the recent sports trainers at the track and field world championships, Chasan says he had runners wear cooling packs around their core to lower their body temperature two to three degrees, but at the same time has them warm up their limbs with prerace agilities or stretches. This allows them to start at a lower body temperature before exerting the energy that would lead to overheating.
But what about heat? Neil says that he recommends ice over heat every time. “When heat touches the skin, the cells that are guarding the injured area are dispersed, and the inflammation is then free to spread,” Chasan says. Heating one part of your body with a heating pad has a different effect than actually warming up your body temperature does, which is the point of warming up.
Avoid unnecessary soreness, inflammation and injury by taking advice from someone who knows, and ice already. You might be cold in the process, but you definitely won’t regret expediting the healing process or preventing injury all together.