Athletes and Ice

Does it seem like more and more athletes are missing more and more of their careers? Pitchers are pitching less games and fewer innings per outing, and yet everyone needs Tommy John surgery to repair their elbows. The NBA has been hammered the last few years with injuries to superstars. The threat of injury has every athlete getting more “treatment,” but despite all the extra treatment, it seems like bodies aren’t holding up as well.

Makes me wonder if we’re going to discover one day that icing joints down after rigorous exercise is like bloodletting a sick patient. We treat swelling like swelling is a problem, but it’s a solution. Swelling immobilizes joints and oxygenates damaged tissue. Rather than let the body do what it is built to do, we treat a remedy like it’s some symptom.

The same thing with fevers. High body temps kill viruses meant for a narrow range of temperatures. We see the fever as a problem and fight that, when the fever is what our body uses to get better. My dad is a stubborn cuss; when he gets sick, he just piles on the blankets and “sweats it out.” You know, like what we have done for millions of years (for longer than we’ve been humans).

I guess I inherited this stubbornness. When I sprain an ankle, I walk it off. Yeah, it hurts like sin, but the last thing I want to do is numb that hurt. The hurt tells me where not to put pressure. Pain isn’t something given to us to punish us; it’s a tool for avoiding further tissue damage. Without pain, we would leave our hands on the hot stove.

So how much damage are we doing by giving athletes ice baths and wrapping ice packs on the shoulders and elbows of pitchers? I suspect quite a bit. Not only are we getting rid of the immobilizing swelling, which allows us to move joints and micro-tear ligaments that need healing. It also deadens the pain which would tell us not to move the joints quite that far or in that direction until they’ve had a chance to heal. Plus, heat and extra blood may have some recovery effect.

It’ll be nice when we get those nanos up and running and we can monitor recovery on a cellular basis, see what’s going on in the tissue over time, and hopefully be brave enough to try different recovery methods along with some control groups. The first hypothesis I’d test is whether the control groups who don’t ice have stronger recoveries. My guess would be that we need to get extra building blocks into bodies, in the form of nutrients, vitamins, proteins, and minerals. Maybe have athletes breathe a higher oxygen mix for a full day after a taxing outing. And whatever we do — don’t fight the swelling.


15 responses to “Athletes and Ice”

  1. There’s a lot of science that’s shown ice can stunt and inhibit the natural processes of self-healing. Inflammation is absolutely necessary like you said, but to an extent.

    I think it’s important to frame both contexts that you referenced. You sprain an ankle, you walk it off, endure the pain, and you’re back to normal in a few days. That’s a reasonable sequence of events.

    Now you have athlete A in a playoff series who needs to get back out and perform at the highest level in the world within 48-72 hours. This situation now demands that inflammation be minimized for the sake of range of motion, pain, and other performance-affecting factors. The unfortunate part is that the organizations are fine with this ugly truth, despite the fact that it creates a complete disregard for long-term health and mobility. Think of the NFL guys who get the sprayed with the instant-freeze to numb the injury and get back out there.

    Another issue, albeit on a more macro level, is the fact that nutrition and technology have allowed sports to progress beyond what was conceivable just 50 years ago.

    People are running miles and marathons in mind-boggling times, strength athletes are pushing the envelope and the list goes on. The issue is that the nutrition and technology is able to flirt with exponential rates of improvement where as the human body is at the mercy of natural evolution (excluding beneficial de novo mutations and the like). Our ligaments, tendons, muscles, cognitive abilities, neuro, etc. don’t have a fighting chance at keeping up with the external developments and that is probably playing a large role in why we see so many bodies ‘failing’ these days.

    Look at how many concussions the NFL is experiencing. It wasn’t an issue when running backs were 180lbs, but now they’re 260lbs and even faster than before. The human brain must be slacking because it hasn’t been able to learn to take that sort of trauma and not bleed…what a failure.

    Just my .02, and there is a lot of support for ice within first 48 hours to keep inflammation down and then its heat / compression + regular activity to break down tissue and promote removal and growth of new cells. I’m a molecular guy so it’s not my specialty, but I do know the literature is out there.

    As always though, I do believe there’s a high likelihood that our sacred cows will proven to be ugly pigs in the future. Whether its medicine, icing, cultural norms, it’s impossible to detect. Like a fish trying to learn about the ocean, you won’t ever know it’s happening because you’re smack dab in the middle. Besides, it’s kind of fun to think about what common knowledge and practices of our present day will be the barbaric atrocities of the future!

    1. Unable to edit, but here’s a video specifically on the paradigm shift of icing and why it may not be around for much longer:

      And a quality (and long) article from a physical therapist if anyone’s interested:

      1. Holy hell! There’s science behind this? Thanks for these links, man.

  2. Doctors strapped my mother to the table during childbirth, a standard and routine practice for a period of time evidently. Guessing they didn’t understand the shape of the birthing canal or gravity for that matter. No wonder she only had one kid.

  3. Same thing with the common cold! I tough it out without using all those over-the-counter cold remedies and I’m usually all better in a matter of days. My husband, on the other hand, goes for all the Tylenol Cold and NyQuil that he can get his hands in and he usually fights it for a couple of weeks. I think it’s really bad to suppress your body’s immune response.

  4. It is athletic fashion. It changes with time.

    When I was a kid, injuries were treated with ice bath, hot whirlpool, ice, whirlpool, ice. Cold, hot, cold, hot, cold (CHCHC). The theory was to cause fluid movement in the target areas.

    Now my nephew — once a member of the state champion cross-country team — takes an ice bath after every run. No heat at all. That is what he was taught.

    I think the merit in the CHCHC method was that it influenced lymphatic circulation as well as blood circulation. I think the lymph system is more important to tendons and ligament than is blood.

  5. Hey guys,

    I’m a sports therapist, so I work with athletes, acute and chronic injuries on a daily basis. One of the techniques I use is ice, heat, and movement therapy to correct an injury — ice for 20 minutes, heat for 45, then ice for 20 minutes, then heat for 45. It’s called ice-hot therapy and has been used for many years in Germany. In the process, you move around, and even if you can’t put wait on your injury, you do your best to at least have someone move it around for you. It’s incredible how well it works, but the most important thing your body needs when in acute injury phase is to slow down, relax, and put your energy toward healing. Your body has just incurred a shock, so it needs extra attention to that shock. Now, when your body is healing and swelling, it’s creating heat, bringing oxygen and circulation to the pained area, flooding in fibro-blasts — fiber building cells that re-build tissue that has been damaged in some way.

    What I’ve found in my studies and experiences with athletes is that it’s not always about the ice that inhibits their healing process. It’s about their impatience and the impatience of their coaches and/or trainers. A body needs to rest and repair, whether the athlete wants it or not. In most cases, they don’t rest and continue to injure the tissue, never allowing it to fully heal. When you do something like that, you create restrictions in movement, and scar tissue forms, which then becomes a heart-ache to re-align, causing more and more injuries.

    What a lot of athletes, trainers, and coaches don’t realize, is that nutrition is even more vitally important, as you need nutrients, such as calogen builders (Whole Vitamin C and Vitamin K), to help those fibro-blasts build more tissue. You won’t believe how quickly a person who is juicing fruits and vegetables on a daily basis heals compared to an athlete on a junk food diet. It’s amazing. Now, you add stretching, movement therapy, and balance therapy, the results are amazing.

    And, last, but not least, kinesiology — the way a person moves — has also been destroying athletes bodies these days. We aren’t taught how to move and with the advent of new technologies in shoes, we haven’t lowered our injured rate, we have upped it. We have taken an incredible design — our foot — and have re-aligned it with the high arches in tennis shoes. The high arch does one thing — it supports the arch of our foot. This, over time, decreases the muscle activity of our peroneal muscles (muscles on the lateral aspect of our shin), our tibialus muscles (shin muscles), and our soleus and gastrocs (calf muscles), and instead of keeping our foot arched, it lowers the arches of our feet. What occurs after, and through childhood to adulthood, is the shoes we wear changes the gate of our walk. We literally change the way we run, jump, and fall. This creates havoc on our feet, knees, hips, low back, and lumbar spine. It’s a domino affect.

    And, all you really need to do is study the African tribes and the Central American tribes. They are the best runners in the world, yet they don’t wear shoes and they rarely ever get injured. Chronic injuries don’t exist in those tribes and they have perfect balance and perfect posture.

    And, they aren’t eating food that steals our nutrients. They eat real, whole food not from a store, but from the land.

    I just wrote a mouth-full.

    1. Please elaborate on what sort of food can actually “steal nutrients.” If you only have abstracts to this that’s fine, I can likely access the full text.

      On top of that, can you explain what “real, whole food” is and the difference of store bought vs land? I know these trendy words sound good, just like non-GMO and organic but it’s got to stop. The research has fallen flat on its face when trying to show statistically significant differences between these food groups and the commnon store-bought items.

      My personal favorite is when people say they eat “clean.” wtf? Are you washing your food more carefully? haha If they mean nutrient dense or fibrous, then say that! Sorry if this is condescending.

      Nutrition and exercise science are riddled with as much pseudo and bro science as almost any other field. It fascinates me actually, it’s an intriguing sub-culture unto itself filled with Google scholars and Pubmed Ninjas.

      1. Hi Jason,

        Sorry if I wasn’t very specific.

        Food that can steel nutrients from your body are junk food, fast (greasy) foods, processed food (in a box), foods containing aspartame, monosodium glutamate, foods containing processed sugar, soda containing phosphoric acid (and other acids), complex carbohydrates (too much pastas and breads), alcohol, etc.

        For example, phosphoric acid leaches calcium out of our bones. Too much alcohol steals water and minerals from our body. I could keep going, but don’t want to bore you.

        Real food is a whole, live organism. You won’t ever see food inside of boxes growing in nature. You won’t see pasta growing from trees. When you eat straight from the land (a garden) you are eating the most amount of nutrients that the plant can offer, however, when you buy produce in a store, it has less nutrient value as oxidation has set in and over that 5 – 7 days of transportation time from the farm to the store, the nutrient dense fruit or vegetable starts losing nutrients by the day.

        Also, a whole vitamin is different from a lab born vitamin. In whole vitamins, they take from the fruit its intrinsic values. This means that when considering which vitamin c bottle you want to buy, you have the synthetic ascorbic acid brand or the whole acerola cherry vitamin c type brand. The lab born ascorbic acid brand will have only ascorbic acid in it, which is nothing more than the envelope around the vitamin c cell. Now, when buying the whole vitamin c brand, you not only get the acorbic acid envelope, but you get all the intrinsic factors that make up Vitamin C, such as factor k, which helps the vitamin c absorb into the body.

        Oh, boy. I hope I just didn’t confuse you or just tick you off more. That isn’t my intent. I have worked with 10,000+ clients since 1999, and have had a lot of experience dealing with athletes, health, and nutrition.

        And, I’m still learning…

        1. And, I’m typing on the phone, so I see some misspellings. My bad!

          1. While I was fully expecting some anecdotal response, I was hoping for at least one or two primary research papers lol I am slightly disappointed, but for the record I’m not ticked off at all. You seem to get wonderful results with your clients in spite some misconceptions of what the science is telling us.

            I know it’s all well and good to believe nature is always superior, etc. etc. but I am unaware of any controlled study that shows this when it comes to vitamins and the like. Do you have any sources that show that isolated vitamins from nature are superior to synthetic forms in a lab?

            FYI – Insulin is made in labs for diabetics, so let’s not take this logic too far that all science-made ingredients are harmful ;) Penicilin didn’t do so bad for the human race…

            I agree the processed foods tend to have less fiber and nutrients which is the culprit. However, I’ll hold out on the “leeching of nutrients” until you show me some actual research that suggests this.

            Big picture I think we are on the same page, so *high five* for that! I’d just recommend that you look into the claims of “lab vitamins” being inferior. You can’t compare a broad spectrum group of vitamin B in a blueberry to an isolated methylcobalamin supplemented, that’s not apples to apples!

            Enjoying the convo.

            Frozen vegetables (in theory) solves your issue by the way. Negligible amounts of oxidation.

            The definition real food = live organism is somewhat of a logical fallacy, but I’m thinking this may just be part of a language barrier?

  6. Dave Cantrell Avatar

    I’m reminded of a scene from the classic Woody Allen movie, Sleeper. His character was a health-food store owner that is revived from cryogenic sleep two hundred years in the future. A scientists gives him a cigarette and explains that it is one of the most beneficial substances known to science. If you’ve never seen the movie, you’ve missed something special.

  7. Krid "Kid" Wallinbee-Vador Jr. Avatar
    Krid “Kid” Wallinbee-Vador Jr.

    Nanobots in our bodies are cool, but after a few years, they’ll probably do some study that turns out nanobots cause cancer. Or if they are supposed to be able to cure cancer (among many other medical benefits), it’ll turn out they really only work at 57% of efficiency. Or we’ll swap medical problems for rampant nano-hacker threats lul.

  8. Shoes are another culprit. They are casts for your feet and ankles. Arch supports, cushion, etc. – your FEET are supposed to fulfill those tasks. Now the barefoot running craze has some criticisms, but they were on the right track.

    I had some knee and lower back issues; when I graduated to running my miles in Crocs, they all disappeared. The commenter above has it right; we were never taught to run properly. People who are poor at ‘ball’ sports, are usually slow. So they run track. Still slow. So they run marathons.

    They are slow to begin with because they have poor biomechanical form. So now instead of running up and down a 90ft basketball court, they are running 26 miles over hills and dales, wearing $150 casts on both feet !

  9. kathy czarnecki Avatar
    kathy czarnecki

    The best athletes and the best sport in the world plays on ice! Go Blackhawks :)

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