Talk to any high-level athlete and—in the name of recovery—he will probably attest to having hopped in a freezing cold ice bath at some point or other.
CrossFit Games athletes are notorious for lounging around in ice water between events. Perennial Games athlete Lucas Parker is even known to include them during regular training weeks; in his case, the freezing Pacific ocean behind his parents’ home in Victoria, B.C. becomes a post-workout ice bath, even in the winter.
The general theory behind cold therapy is that exposing your body to cold helps guard against small tears in your muscle fibers that lead to soreness the next day. Ice baths, specifically, are thought to constrict blood vessels, flush waste products and reduce swelling and tissue breakdown.
But is there really any legitimate science behind the cold tub theory? Or are overworked and sore athletes just willing to believe and try just about anything to help them recover more effectively?
The answer to the former question suggests the science behind ice baths is dubious at best.
While this 2010 article published in the Journal of Emergency Trauma Shock doesn’t flat out reject that ice baths might help with recovery, it explains there is still a lack of evidence to support the claim.
And a more recent 2015 study published in the Journal of Physiology went so far as to suggest ice baths might actually limit your ability to gain strength.
In this article in Science Daily, Dr Llion Roberts explained why he thinks ice baths might slow long-term muscle mass gains: “At this stage we are unsure why cold water immersion had this effect, but a reduction of muscle blood flow could be one mechanism.”
What about icing injuries?
Truth is, some physiotherapists—a profession that has long since pushed icing to speed healing—are now even questioning whether we should put ice on acute injures.
Dr. Braham Jam is one of these physiotherapists. He argues that not only is icing not necessary much of the time, it might even be counterproductive as it slows long-term healing.
In a published by the Advanced Physical Therapy Institute (APTEI) in April, 2015, Dr. Jam explained why: Icing is basically something only the western world adopted, he said, but the truth is scientific evidence connecting icing with better healing is, in fact, slim to none.
“In fact, clinical trials on the efficacy of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) have supported the use of compression, but have found no value in icing…,” Jam said.
Not only is Jam suspicious ice might not be that helpful, he even suggests icing might even be counterproductive to healing. His rationale is this: Inflammation is the body’s natural response to an injury, so why are we trying to stop it artificially?
“Inflammation is an inevitable and an essential biological response following acute soft tissue injuries. It is a protective attempt by the body to remove the damaging stimuli and to begin the healing process,” Jam said.
Gary Reinl, who has spent more than 40 years in the sports medicine industry, is another who questions the value of icing injuries. Reinl feels so strongly about the subject he wrote a book called, “Iced! The Illusionary Treatment Option.”
Similarly, other articles, such as this 2014 Maclean’s article, “Why ice doesn’t help an injury and could even make it points to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, which suggests icing might even delay recovery from eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage.
So what does all this mean?
It means ice might be a placebo. If it makes you feel better, use it. But it also means the next time someone gets injured, you don’t need to freak out if you don’t happen to have ice on hand…