We often hear people say to put ice right after an acute injury to make sure the inflammation is managed properly. What does science say about this?
You may be surprised to learn that the scientific literature does not support the use of ice to promote healing after an acute injury and especially to manage inflammation.
It is important to know that inflammation is the body’s normal response right after an injury. This is actually the first phase of the healing process. During the inflammatory phase, blood flow increases to the injured area, causing that area to become red, swollen and painful. The purpose of this process is to bring in elements from the circulation needed to eliminate waste and stimulate the repair of structures that have been injured. Therefore, putting ice on the wound will decrease local blood flow and limit the lymphatic pumping action. In the mid to long term, the use of ice may limit the healing potential.
Despite everything, ice remains a good analgesic, and therefore a tool that can help reduce pain when present. This can be beneficial if the use of ice helps to avoid or reduce the use of pain medications. In addition, sleep is important for healing, so if pain affects quality of sleep, ice can be a good ally.
The takeaway message from all this is that applying ice can be effective for pain management. On the other hand, it can slow down the healing process, especially if used in the first few days after the injury.