We all know that ice can be a go-to treatment for any acute injury or ache. Take one look in an emergency medical kit, or walk into any well-respected training facility, and you’re sure to find an ice bag or machine ready for relief and recovery. You’ve probably even utilized ice in some at-home treatments, too — remember the RICE method from high school gym class?
But does ice have more uses than stopping the swelling on a rolled ankle? After all, you see your favorite professional athletes jumping into ice baths post-training or post-game, so could those perceived benefits be reaped by the average Joe? The short answer is that ice can serve a post-workout purpose, but only if your workouts are truly intense.
We spoke with Gaetano Sanchioli, athletic trainer at UPMC Sports Medicine, to see if ice could be just as effective at treating your post-workout aches and pains as it is at reducing your acute injuries. But first, it helps to understand just how ice affects the body, and when the treatment should be applied.
What does ice do?
Whenever you injure yourself — sprain an ankle, hyperextend a muscle or ligament, etc. — your body kicks into what’s known as an inflammatory response. This is your body telling itself that something in the system is compromised, and attention is needed. Blood flow increases to the injured area to begin the healing process, which is showcased by the symptoms of heat (blood rushing to the area), redness (blood entering the area) and swelling (blood congregating in the area). The pain you feel in these acute, musculoskeletal injuries is the blood accumulating under the muscle’s inelastic membrane, thus increasing pressure in the area.
To help reduce this swelling and pain, ice can be placed on the affected area, utilizing its vasoconstrictive qualities to help slow the blood flow and provide some relief. Sanchioli says that ice can be great for managing pain and inflammation, “You just don’t need to go hog wild.” This is because ice’s treatment benefits — like a cold drink sitting outside in the sun — have a melting point.
When is ice appropriate?
The sensations felt after an acute musculoskeletal injury don’t take long to notice. Just think back to the last time you misstepped or tweaked a muscle and felt that immediate rush of heat. As such, treating the swelling with ice is most effective when immediately administered, but if you don’t have an ice pack handy, treating the area within 24–48 hours will suffice. Make sure to alternate between icing and rest — 10 minutes on and 10 minutes off is a good cadence. Leaving the ice on for longer periods of time can cause further tissue damage, negating the beneficial perks of the treatment to begin with.
Routinely icing through those first 48 hours can help manage the pain, and may help keep the area mobile enough for less compromised daily activities. After this timeframe has passed, however, it’s best to start gently moving the muscle to increase blood supply and begin the healing process. Additionally, swelling is not amenable to icing after 48 hours, the area is already as swollen as it will become. If you’re still feeling pain and swelling at that point, other treatment methods are better suited for the job.
It’s important to note, though, that while ice can be a great tool for these acute injuries and aches, it’s not always the best solution. If you suffer from an underlying condition related to circulation, blood pressure or other health factors, icing can potentially worsen your symptoms and lead to more problems down the road. If you suffer from any of these conditions, or are simply unsure, it’s always a good idea to consult with a medical professional before performing any at-home treatment.
So ice is great for injuries, but what about post-workout?
It depends on how intense your workouts are. In short, it makes much more sense for professional athletes than it probably does for you at home.
When you work out, you’re actually “injuring” yourself, in a sense. As you lift heavy weights or log extensive miles, your muscles develop micro tears in their fibers, and just like the injuries above, your body reacts with an inflammatory response, increasing blood flow to the area to help begin the healing process.
Now, your body has a good understanding when it comes to the severity of an “injury,” which is why you’re less likely to feel the pain sequence of the inflammatory response immediately after working out. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, DOMS for short, is the culmination of that pain, typically arriving 12–48 hours post-workout.
While these DOMS are an indication that your body is doing what it’s supposed to, they can still be debilitating and annoying to deal with. While there’s plenty of recovery methods like massage guns, foam rollers and compression therapy to help increase blood flow to the aching muscles, ice can also be a prevalent treatment, especially after intense activity that’s resulted in more muscle fiber micro tears.
But should you be dunking yourself into an ice bath to shock the system and stop those pesky DOMS in their tracks? Well, according to Sanchioli, it all depends on how “intense” your training is. Spoiler alert — it’s probably not intense enough to warrant an ice bath
“A pro football player who’s burning 3,000 calories three times a day in summer workouts can benefit from an ice bath, but your everyday average Joe, I don’t think it’s going to do very much for you,” Sanchioli says on the intensity required to warrant using ice as a post-workout recovery tool. “You’re really not pushing your muscles that hard to where you’re going to really need to do the ice baths or that shocking treatment.”
Sanchioli also notes that if you are interested in using ice for post-workout relief, especially in the form of ice baths, that you take any underlying conditions into consideration. “If you have an underlying health issue, blood pressure, heart problems, [etc.] that shocking of the system could be a problem. You just have to be careful, but a little bit of ice here and there when you’re sore is not going to bother you.”
So, while ice can be a fantastic tool in treating acute injuries, albeit within the proper timeframes, unless you’re logging marathon-level runs or tallying professional league workouts day in and day out, you might be better off saving the ice for your post-workout beverage instead. Still, everybody is different, and thus, every body is different. The best recovery method is the one that suits your needs, so chill out, don’t stress and use what works for you.