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.

Ben Greenfield
6-minute read
Episode #146

Can Ice Reduce Swelling and Soreness?

One of the reasons you get so sore after a workout is from swelling – and the subsequent pressure placed on nerves and tissue from that swelling. Prevention of excessive swelling is important because fluid that has escaped into the tissues from excessive swelling can create a low oxygen (hypoxic) environment that can lead to additional tissue damage and delay healing. In addition, swelling can cause distention in joint capsules and other tissues, and excitation of nervous system components called mechanoreceptors – which can also increase pain and soreness.

But the benefits of icing don’t stop with the ability to control excessive swelling. For example, the cold temperature of ice can slow down nerve conduction velocity and shut down the activation of protective muscle reflexes, making ice a highly effective pain reliever and muscle relaxant. If a muscle is in less pain and is more relaxed, then mobilization and movement become a reality, and you can get back to the next workout more quickly.

Ice also reduced metabolic activity in the tissues that are iced, making them better able to resist the damaging effects of loss of oxygen from inflammatory swelling pressure. In other words, lower tissue temperatures from icing means less oxygen is required by those muscles to sustain their integrity.

When you ice, you also experience what is called a “Hunting reflex,” in which your vessels pump of inflammatory and metabolic byproducts out of an injured area, while allowing additional healing components such as  macrophages and white blood cells to mobilize into the area for speeding up healing and reducing soreness. When combined with pressure and elevation, this “pumping” action of ice can be an extremely effective workout recovery tool.

How to Ice Sore Muscles

If you have an actual injury, icing can (and should) be initiated as soon as possible after the event, for a duration of 20 to 30 minutes. You can use frozen ice cups, ice baths, crushed ice, frozen vegetables in a plastic bag, or one of my latest finds, a convenient pack of FrozenPeaz.

But for overall muscle soreness that isn’t caused by a localized injury, ice immersion works much better, and can be accomplishied by spending 15-20 minutes in a cold bath (don’t worry – it doesn’t have to be teeth-grittingly cold – 55 degrees is just fine) or by taking a cold shower. By doing so, you’ll also get all the other benefits of cold thermogenesis.

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Check out my book Get-Fit Guy's Guide to Achieving Your Ideal Body for tips on the fastest way to your dream shape.



About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.