Do Not Ice Your Injuries

Everyone gets hurt. If you’ve ever injured yourself, you probably iced it right away. RICE (Rest, Ice Compression, Elevation) is the treatment method doctors, physical therapists and chiropractors usually recommend. According to conventional Western medicine, ice halts the inflammation process associated with an acute injury, and reduces its associated pain.

 But is this the best way to treat an injury? Our bodies react automatically to injury, based on physiological processes that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. The body uses inflammation in complex ways to fight foreign substances, remove damaged cells, irritants, pathogens, and initiate the healing process. Are we smarter than nature? 

Both new and old research popularized by Kelly Starrett indicates that ice can hurt you more than it can help you. 

  • According to the Journal of Emergency Medicine, there is insufficient evidence that ice can help an injury at all
  • The medical journal Sports Medicine explains that ice causes a backup of lymph, which perfuses back into the area of the injury, causing more swelling and even slower healing.

Additionally, icing an area or using contrast baths (alternating immersion in cold and hot water) reduces nerve conduction, initially fighting pain but ultimately slowing down the body’s healing response.

 Despite all the evidence, “To ice or not to ice?” is a continuing argument between allopathic practitioners and Chinese medicine practitioners.

What’s wrong with ice? It’s cold. Cold things congeal, rather than flow. Think of your leftovers - they tend to get harder and thicker when refrigerated, and they loosen up when heated. According to Chinese medicine: 

  • The cold from ice will ultimately stagnate the blood and energy in the injured area, thus worsening the problem.
  • This congestion prevents fresh blood and nutrients from entering, and waste products from leaving the injured area. 
  • An injured area is weaker, and is susceptible to the cold lodged in the injured area. This dynamic creates long-term pain, swelling and weakness, and heightens the possibility of re-injury. 

Everyone agrees that swelling increases pain, potentially damages nearby tissues, and can worsen scarring. But rather than use ice, Chinese practitioners focus on improving the circulation of qi and blood to reduce swelling and promote healing. 

To do so, we use the following tools:

  • Herbal medicine (topical and oral). If the area is hot and inflamed, we use “cool” herbs, either internally or topically with hot compresses or soaks. If an area is cold or stagnant, we use gentle heat and “warm” herbs to stimulate circulation. The energetic principle behind this treatment involves stimulating circulation and bringing the tissues back to normal temperatures.
  • Acupuncture. Acupuncture is one of the most direct methods for stimulating circulation and the flow of qi.
  • Movement. Physiologically, muscle contraction is primarily responsible for moving fluid through the lymph system. Gently moving and exercising the injured area eliminates fluid that creates swelling.
  • Elevation. Elevating an injured area will prevent blood from stagnating due to gravity. 
  • Compression. Strategically wrapping or taping an effected area wrings lymph and blood from the tissues. 

 For acute injuries, we should replace RICE with a new acronym - HAMEC. Herbal medicine (topical and oral), Acupuncture, Movement, Elevation, and Compression will heal your injury more quickly and permanently than RICE.