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This article was last updated on September 27, 2016

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.

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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
  • Power
  • 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.

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Using Ice After Exercise

Should you place ice on your muscles 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.

About Sports Medicine

Sports and physical activity bring with them a potential for injury. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury – or improve athletic performance – UPMC Sports Medicine and the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program can help. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our experts partner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers, and about 100 other high school, college, and regional teams and events throughout Pennsylvania – working daily to build better athletes.