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February 23rd, 2012

Could icing injuries be a bad idea?

Last weekend I went dog sledding in Quebec. It started out fun, but it didn’t end that way, unfortunately – as we were going around a corner, our sled started tilting up the bank sideways and I stuck my leg out to avoid falling. Stupid idea – my foot was pulled behind me and I twisted my knee. Luckily we managed to stop the sled before too much damage was done, but I sprained my MCL and am still hobbling almost a week later.

But that’s not the story. The story here is what I did after the injury – or rather, what I didn’t do. I’ve long been skeptical of the RICE method of treating sprains – that’s rest, ice, compress and elevate – and for this injury, I decided to ignore it. (Well, except for the rest thing. I haven’t really had a choice. But I’m moving as much as I can.)

Ice reduces inflammation and swelling, and numbs pain. We all know this from experience. But what I’ve never understood is why we would want to do that. After all, it’s my body that’s going to have to heal my strained ligament – the ice won’t do that, and neither will an ibuprofen. So shouldn’t I let my body do what it naturally wants to do?

Inflammation, after all, means increased blood flow – and that’s a good thing when it comes to healing, no one disputes that. I have a good prognosis partly because the MCL has more blood flow than other knee ligaments. As for swelling? Well, it immobilizes the joint, meaning you can’t move it too much and injure it more. And pain is the body’s warning not to do something. If you numb the pain, you’re more likely to keep using an injured body part rather than protecting it.

Searches online have revealed that a lot of other people are anti-icing, too – and that there might be a backlash growing against the practice. Apparently, in traditional Chinese medicine only burns are iced, which makes sense as you’re trying to reduce heat. If you ice a sprain, they say (and from what I’ve read – I’m no expert), you increase your risk of arthritis later on. Which makes sense if it’s a result of improper healing.

But what really struck me was blog and forum posts where people recommended and swore by icing – but then said that their injury hadn’t healed as quickly as they’d hoped, and it must be because they didn’t ice it enough. I can’t help but wonder – was it the icing that slowed the healing process? Are we believing in a myth?

I’m hoping to do more research on this subject when I get a chance. But tell me: what do you think? Are you an icing addict or skeptical like me?

First photo by me at Aventures Nord-Bec; second photo by Lucid Nightmare on Flickr.


Travelling the world (and especially Toronto) with writer and editor Kat Tancock. Also drop by my silly cat Tumblr, Cats I have met while travelling.

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