For years, athletes have submerged themselves in ice baths and cold whirlpools to relieve tension and pain associated with sore muscles. However, according to an article published in the Journal of Sports Medicine in January 2012, it may not be the best treatment for aching muscles — in fact, it could even be detrimental to recovery.
Ice Therapy Research History
According to a 2004 study of the effect of icing sore muscles, icing reduced pain in injured tissues. However, icing’s overall effect on sore muscles was not fully determined.
In a 2011 study, researchers found no distinct benefits from icing sore muscles. Muscles did not heal faster, nor were they less painful than untreated tissues.
In the majority of studies, researchers found icing was effective in numbing muscle soreness, but observed — for up to 15 minutes after ice treatment — significantly reduced:
- Muscle strength
- Fine motor coordination
Because ice reduces nerve conduction velocity, icing slows nerve impulses and directly changes the function of the muscles and tendons. Athletes were not able to jump as high, sprint as fast, or throw as well immediately following 20 minutes of ice treatment.
Using Ice After Exercise
Ice remains the most accepted therapy for acute injuries and recovery from intense performance, because it decreases pain and swelling associated with injuries. However, research has proven no benefits associated with icing and immediately returning to play. Ice treatments should remain the final step after exercise.
If an athlete is stiff from an injury immediately following exercise, it is best to go with ice to ease pain and swelling. However, it is best to apply heat in the hours following injury to increase blood flow.
For more information on injuries and recovery, visit the UPMC Sports Medicine website.