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Does Icing Work for Sore Muscles?

Get-Fit Guy looks at the science behind icing sore muscles, plus has tips on how to make the most of Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation.

By
Ben Greenfield,
July 23, 2013
Episode #146

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Cryotherapy may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but it’s actually something you’ve done before if you’ve ever iced a sore ankle, taken a plunge into a cold shower or bath, or shoved your hand into ice water after touching a hot stove. It’s simply the use of ice or cold as “therapy.” Of course, you can get very scientific with cryotherapy if you would like. For example, few months ago, when I was at a health and fitness conference, I actually tried a more advanced form of cryotherapy in which my body was immersed in a subzero temperature chamber for 3 minutes. You can watch the video series from that chilling experience.

In this case, the cryotherapy immersion was meant to boost my metabolism, assist with fat-burning, and improve sleep. But in today’s episode, we’re going to focus on perhaps the most convenient, useful, and pleasant form of cryotherapy – icing sore muscles. And you’re going to learn whether icing muscles really works for soreness, along with the very best way to ice.

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Icing for Recovery

In the episode How to Recover After a Workout, you learn about using techniques such as nutrition, hydration, compression, blood flow, and topical ointments to limit the annoying muscle soreness that you often experience after lifting weights, running, or exposing your muscles to other potentially damaging activities.

Icing and cold exposure are also among the sore muscle recovery methods I personally use on a regular basis. On my blog, BenGreenfieldFitness.com, I’ve written comprehensively about the advantages of cold thermogenesis, including the multitude of performance benefits derived from frequent exposure to cold temperatures and cryotherapy such as cold water immersion, cold showers, cold-hot contrast showers, or use of body cooling gear such as the Cool Fat Burner vest or 110% Compression Gear. The benefits of all these cooling techniques include enhanced immune system, increased cell longevity, decreased level of inflammatory molecules such interleukin-6, and of course, decreased soreness.

The application of cold to a sore muscle is hardly a new concept. The Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the use of cold therapy to control pain and swelling in the 4th century B.C., and the Roman physician Galen described the use of cold compresses for pain management following soft tissue injuries in the 1st century A.D.

There are even studies that are commonly cited in the argument against icing.

During the Middle Ages, ice was used for pre-surgical anesthesia, and ice therapy has been extensively used in athletic training facilities and physical therapy clinics for the treatment of sports injuries. But despite the seeming widespread acceptance of tossing a bag of ice on an injured ankle or aching shoulder, there is lately a sudden doubting of icing’s efficacy.

The argument goes something like this: When an injury occurs, your body creates inflammation as a healing response. So if inflammation is the body’s natural way to heal an injury, why would you want to block this inflammatory process with ice?

It has also been claimed that icing may increase the permeability of lymphatic vessels (the tubes in your body which normally help carry excess tissue fluids back into your cardiovascular system). Once this lymphatic permeability increases, there may be risk of a large amounts of fluid backflowing into the sore area, causing more swelling than may have occurred if you didn’t ice in the first place.

And there are even several studies that are commonly cited in this argument against icing.

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