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/
I have been told to ice often, especially immediately after exercising. It’s something I do almost mindlessly now and, while it feels good, I am not sure if it has actually helped me in a significant way or not! It’s interesting that moderately cold ice and water is recommended over extreme cold. This makes sense (and seems more comfortable) since the human body typically does not respond well to extreme cold temperatures, maybe this could even cause cell damage? I also always thought of inflammation as the root of my injuries, never as a good thing, but this post gave me a new perspective on how inflammation is necessary for healing. Thanks!
I thought this was a really interesting post! It would be interesting if future studies focus on analyzing the effects of different degrees of icing and the whether localizing the icing has different effects. The degrees of the water bath had effects for the second article, and it would be interesting to see what range is recommended and what could be potentially harmful. I’d also be curious to know how much the localization of the icing matters and if direct localization of the target muscles is more effective compared to entire limb immersion. The first study had more direct localization of the icing to more specifically target the muscles, where the second study had complete lower body immersion. I think the second article makes a great point when they explain that while the cold-water immersion accelerated the performance recovery, it did not improve the isometric strength recovery. They mention that it might be a limitation of other studies to only observe isometric contraction recovery as the only measure of muscle function as this may not be observing all of the possible changes resulting from cold water immersion. I am glad to learn that while icing can reduce short term soreness, this does not necessarily correlate to increasing muscle recovery.
I found this post very interesting as I have always been told to ice as well. I know many high school and college athletes that frequently use ice baths after practice to help with pain. This would be using very cold water so maybe it would actually be more beneficial if the water was warmer? I’m curious if the type of exercises performed has an effect on how well the icing works? Both studies used strength training exercises so I am wondering if icing following endurance exercises (like running) would prove to have a different effect. I also had never thought about icing as limiting the blood flow to the muscle so this made me question if icing could actually be harmful.