If you’re an athlete, there is a good chance that you have been told to ice your muscles after exercising. Icing is commonly thought to alleviate inflammation and soreness, as well as help to heal injuries caused by muscle overuse more quickly.1 There are different types of icing techniques popular in the world of athletics, ranging from a simple ice pack or frozen gel to cryotherapy and cold therapy chambers.2 Despite its wide use, there is some controversy regarding whether cold therapies are beneficial to the muscles or causing more harm than good.
Inflammation is an acute physiological response that is needed for tissues in the body to heal after exercising. Those opposing ice therapies claim that icing a sore muscle reduces its blood flow and slows the natural process of alleviating inflammation. While there is evidence that icing can help to reduce soreness in the short term after a workout, this reduction in the immune response can prevent the muscles from healing as quickly as they otherwise would.3 Many researchers have studied these countering views on the subject.
Figure 1. Cryotherapy machine 
One study aimed to see if topical cooling could improve recovery in eccentric contraction-induced muscle damage.4 They used a sample of 11 college male baseball players and put them into two groups; a control group and a group receiving topical cooling. The subjects used a barbell to complete 6 sets of 5 eccentric arm contractions. Those individuals in the cooling group received the ice 0, 3, 24,48, and 72 hours after the exercise for 15 minutes each. This was then repeated four weeks later. The researchers then analyzed the muscle hemodynamic changes, muscle damage markers, inflammatory cytokines, subject pain levels, and isometric muscle strength. The results showed that the subjects pain was similar between the two groups in the short term, but was greater in the later periods after the workout. The measured creatin kinase and myoglobin were significantly greater in the cooling group in the 48 and 72 hour periods than the control group. The cooling also resulted in higher hemoglobin concentration.4
Another study was conducted using 42 moderately active college aged males.5 The researchers had the subjects do 5 sets of 20 drop jumps, followed by lower body immersion in cold water. Three groups were used; one having a water temperature of 5 degrees Celsius, one with 15 degrees Celsius, and one control group. Measurements were taken on isometric knee extensor torque, countermovement jump, muscle soreness, and creatin kinase directly following exercise and 24, 48, 72, 96, and 168 hours after. The results for the countermovement jump showed that the warmer water group recovered more quickly than the colder water group. Creatin kinase remained elevated in all group except the warmer group, which returned to baseline at 72 hours. The subjects reported lower muscle soreness in the warmer water group as well.5
The research shows that icing sore muscles can be beneficial shortly after working out, but that people will possibly experience the same soreness later in time compared to people who don’t ice. It also makes it seem like using only slightly cold ice packs and water is more effective than using extreme cold. Athletes who ice should consider the amount of time they ice and the temperature they use when choosing cold therapies after a workout to avoid possible long term soreness and to improve with training.
Questions to Consider:
- Do you think that using experienced athletes or people who only exercise occasionally was a more effective method of research?
- Have your experiences with ice therapies been positive or negative?
- What could a future study do differently to see the effects of icing on exercise?
- Cluett, J. (2019, September 25). How to Properly Ice an Injury. Retrieved from https://www.verywellhealth.com/how-to-ice-an-injury-2548842
- Gotter, A. (2017, February 2). Treating Pain with Heat and Cold. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/chronic-pain/treating-pain-with-heat-and-cold
- Aschwanden, C. (2019, February 5). Athletes love icing sore muscles, but that cold therapy might make things worse. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/athletes-love-icing-sore-muscles-but-that-cold-therapy-might-make-things-worse/2019/01/31/a465dd84-1f25-11e9-8e21-59a09ff1e2a1_story.html
- Tseng, C.-Y. (2013). Topical Cooling (Icing) Delays Recovery From Eccentric Exercise–Induced Muscle Damage. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(5), 1354–1361.
- Vieira, A. (2016). The Effect of Water Temperature during Cold-Water Immersion on Recovery from Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 37(12), 937–943.
- (n.d.). 5 Cryotherapy Side Effects Therapists Should Watch For. Retrieved from https://www.homeceuconnection.com/blog/cryotherapy-side-effects-therapists/