If you’ve ever taken a soccer ball to the face or accidentally collided with sturdy furniture, you’ve no doubt used an ice pack to reduce swelling and speed healing. Well, new research shows that all icing does is leave you cold.
In findings presented at the 2015 Experimental Biology Meeting in Boston, Australian researchers explored whether applying ice to a muscle-impact injury helped new blood vessels form and muscles regenerate—both signs of healing.
To investigate, they first injured the thighs of two groups of rats—apparently by dropping a cylindrical weight on the poor rats’ little biceps femoris muscles. Then for only one group, they applied ice within five minutes of the injury for 20 minutes. The other group got no ice. In a surprise finding, healing was slower among rats who got the ice treatment.
“Our study showed that icing immediately after muscle contusion injury delayed inflammation, the formation of new blood vessels and the formation of new muscle fibers up to four weeks after the original injury,” says lead researcher Jonathan Peake, a research fellow at the the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at Queensland University of Technology in Australia.
While we’ve been led to believe that reducing inflammation speeds healing, inflammation itself actually plays an important role in the healing of muscle injuries. But timing is key, too. “The inflammatory process must be efficient,” Peake explains, “and must resolve itself, or terminate, within a short time to allow the most effective healing to take place.”
Peake and his team recommend rethinking the use of ice packs—and even anti-inflammatory drugs—to manage bruising, or when you’ve taken a beating to a muscle. (For issues like tendonitis, or a sprained ankle, in which there’s damage to ligaments, ice is likely still a good idea.)
Instead, he would treat muscle injuries, depending on their severity, with a brief period of rest followed by activity. “Mobilizing the limb will help to stimulate blood flow to the muscle, which will aid the regeneration process,” Peake says. Skip the Advil, too. “Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs is not necessarily beneficial, because it interferes with the body’s natural healing process.”