Drop That Ice Pack! Ice versus Heat for Injuries
Boulder Family Acupuncture - Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine for the Whole Family

Drop That Ice Pack! Ice versus Heat for Injuries

It is interesting that ice is now in question as far as effectiveness in treating the acute phase of trauma.  As a parent, I reflexively offer ice to my children for just about any injury from bumps to fractures.  It helps to temporarily relieve pain and inflammation, distract the child from the trauma, and numb the affected area.   However, being an acupuncturist, our training in Chinese Medicine advocates against the use of ice as it “stagnates” blood and other fluids, causing decreased speed of healing and therefore prolonged pain.  So, is ice actually beneficial for the treatment of acute injury?  According to Takagi et al, a study performed on ice application to crush injuries in rats, demonstrated to the contrary (2011).   Not only did ice decrease the speed and ability of muscle tissue to regenerate, but necrotic tissue degeneration/reabsorption was delayed as well.  The study showed that macrophage activity and number were both compromised by application of ice.
In another study (Tseng et al, 2013), the use of ice (“cryotherapy”) to treat muscle-related sports injuries was also analyzed.  The researchers looked at interleukin levels at different stages of injury and recovery.  They found that similarly, the application of ice at 0, 3, 24, 48 and 72 hours only served to delay recovery.   Just my own 2 cents: I wonder if ice temporarily slows the inflammatory response, creating a negative feedback loop which impedes the natural progression of the tissue repair function of inflammation? It seems that the symptoms of inflammation, like heat and swelling, are necessary to trigger the cascade of leukocytes, cytokines, etc. which are active in the repair process.  Chinese Medicine posits a more simple explanation, but with the same conclusion: cold causes stasis and heat brings movement and healing.
Takagi, R., Fujita, N., Arakawa, T., Kawada, S.  (2011).  Influence of icing on muscle regeneration after crush injury to skeletal muscles in rats.  Retrieved on February 5, 2018 from https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.01187.2010 

Tseng, Ching-Yu & Lee, Jo-Ping & Tsai, Yung-Shen & Lee, Shin-Da & Kao, Chung-Lan & Liu, Te-Chih & Lai, Cheng-Shou & Harris, M Brennan & Kuo, Chia-Hua. (2012). Topical Cooling (Icing) Delays Recovery From Eccentric Exercise–Induced Muscle Damage. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 27.10.1519/JSC.0b013e318267a22c.

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When treating injuries, there are many quick and easy ways to relieve pain. One common trick utilized in most aspects of our lives is putting something cold on the injury. While we think this may help because it numbs the area injured and gives a feeling of relief, it actually is hurting you even more than it does to help you. The information provided here shows a clearer understanding of why it is not a good idea to resort to an ice pack right away to help deal with the pain from an injury.
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