An Icy Myth

I’m no doctor, but I have seen a few episodes of “House.”

In all seriousness, I am not a doctor. Nor am I a medical professional of any kind. I’m a high school history teacher who just so happens to be able to do a shit load of pull-ups.  I was also a college athlete, a lacrosse and wrestling coach, and currently train college athletes. The number of times I have subjected myself to ice baths and the number of times I’ve strapped ice to swimmers’ shoulder are innumerable.  But I endured the discomfort and told others to do so.

As it turns out, though… it was all for naught.

According Dr. Gary Reinl, author of “Iced! The Illusionary Treatment Method”,  as well as the British Journal of Sports Medicine and a host of other reputable organizations, using ice to treat aching, sore, and inflamed muscles is not supported by any clinical studies whatsoever.  Not a single one.  So, why do we do it?

Because we always have, duh.

Icing offers a temporary reprieve and numbs the area of the primary symptom of injury, pain. Growing up an athlete, the athletic trainers at my high school and college always advocated RICE.





There are a few select issues with this method of dealing with sore and inflamed muscle tissue.

Icing an area resolves symptoms, not the problem itself.  Managing pain is not the same as stopping the source of the pain.  I asked a swimmer earlier this summer, “Why are you icing your shoulders?” The conversation continued:

“Because they’re sore,” she replied.

“Fair enough, why are they sore?”

“I swam a bunch of fly this morning and they get all inflamed and achey after that.”

“Very good, you’re exactly right; but why would you want to stop the inflammation?”

This young athlete, by no true fault of her own, presumed they she knew how to manage her body’s healing process better than her body did. FACT: injury creates swelling. This is a very dumbed down version of this, but swimming/strength training/etc. is treated by the body as minor injuries to a certain extent, and can also lead to minor swelling. Swelling and inflammation is a natural part of the body’s own healing processes.

After a few hundred thousand years, a healthy human body has a pretty good grasp on how to manage inflammation.  A large part of swelling is due to the body purposefully sending tissue to the injured site to heal the injury. Icing slows this process down!

Another reason swelling occurs is that there is waste product from the healing process and dead tissue that need to be evacuated from the site.  There are two systems within the human body that could possibly carry out this evacuation process: the lymphatic system and the circulatory system.  The circulatory system’s vessels are far too tiny to deal with the size of the material that needs to be pumped out of an injury site. That leaves us with only one option… the lymphatic system.

Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system has no pump as a central hub to get material moving through its vessels.  It’s an intricate network of sacs and tubes that need to be squeezed and manipulated by the surrounding the muscle tissue. Think icey pop in the summer time that you need to squeeze from the bottom up in order to get the flavored ice out and available for consumption.

Ice the musculature around that lymphatic system and it cannot squeeze and move the dead tissue the healing byproduct away from the site.  So far, when looking at RICE, ICE has slowed down the body’s ability to send material to a site to heal it, and slowed down the process by which the body then removes tissue via the lymphatic system.  REST has also slowed this process down in that resting, or immobilizing the muscles, has barred them from squeezing the sacs that make up  the lymphatic system. · Icing creates backflow of fluid in the lymphatic system and ends up creating more swelling, and swelling is painful.

This is not to be confused with using ice baths for recovery.  Go to YouTube, check out the behind the scenes video series from the 2013, 2012, or 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games. Almost every athlete interview between workouts was conducted while the athlete sat in a bath of icy water.

Day two, or three depending on how you look at it, of the  2012 Reebok CrossFit Games required individual athletes to complete the following:


50 yard sprint for time, then

100 yard sprint for time, then

5 rounds for time of 20 foot rope climb, 20 yard sled drive


Clean Ladder; 1 attempt every 30 seconds to complete one clean. Each barbell gets heavier by 10#. Heaviest barbell is 365#.


Chipper: 10 reps of each…  overhead squat (155#), box jump-over, fat-bar thruster (135#), clean (205#), toes-to-bar, burpee muscle-up, toes-to-bar, clean (205#), fat-bar thruster (135#), box jump-over, overhead squat (155#).

The competition floor was reportedly hovering somewhere around 110 degrees.  Also bear in mind this was the second, or third, day of competition still with another day to go.  These athletes were not dealing with inflammation but rather trying to bring their core temperatures down to an even 98.6 degrees.  The faster they can cool down the faster they can be ready to get on to the next workout without feeling the full effect of the workouts they have already completed earlier in the day. Ice baths were everyone’s best friend that afternoon in Carson, California.

Icing is to be used for recovery and lowering core temperature on hot days after intense workouts; not to aid in reduction of inflammation.

So, what can you do instead of icing when dealing with inflammation?

Mobility.  Go through normal range-of-motion exercises (not under load). Sitting still and resting won’t apply the muscle activation necessary to get that lymphatic system pumping out the nastiness.

Compression.  Get a Voodoo floss band. Wrap it around the injured site starting further away from the heart and wrap towards the heart.

Tools to aid in these endeavors: foam rollers, lacrosse balls, MarcPro (or similar) devices, Voodoo floss bands.

In short: using ice to treat inflamed muscle tissue simply slows the process down and creates more swelling and pain.  Instead apply compression and mobilize the site or areas around the injured site to speed up the healing process.