Friday, December 10, 2010

The chilling news about Ice Therapy

As many of my colleagues have been doing  as well, we at Jungle recommend icing injuries for a period no longer than 10 minutes.

Today, we publish everything there is to know about ice therapy.

Cryotherapy - ice therapy - why you should apply ice for just 10 minutes

The next time you or one of your athletes inflame a knee joint, strain a muscle, or twist an ankle during a sporting activity, make certain that you ice the area correctly; inappropriate icing can sometimes make an injury worse rather than better.

'Many athletes spend 20 to 30 minutes continuously applying ice to an aching joint or throbbing muscle, but that can really be counterproductive,' states cryotherapy expert Dr Romain Meeusen of the Free University of Brussels. Meeusen's interest in the sometimes surprising effects of icing the human body began when he was growing up in the northern part of Belgium near Antwerp. As he played with snow as a child, lobbing snowballs into the grey waters of the river Schelde, Meeusen noticed that his bare hands were at first blanched and chilled by the snow but eventually turned bright red and warm, despite their continued contact with the ice-cold snow. The redness and warmness, of course, indicated that prolonged exposure to the icy snow had actually increased blood flow to his hands.

This seemingly strange reaction, in which ice or an application of cold actually increases the flow of blood to a region of the body, represents one reason why Meeusen is concerned about how ice is used therapeutically. After all, one of the goals of cryotherapy is to diminish the movement of blood to the site of an injury, so that there will be less chance of forming a sizeable haematoma (a swollen, painful area containing blood). Since ice can sometimes increase the amount of blood flooding into an injured part of the body, it must be used with caution.

Why it happens

But how can the application of ice enhance the passage of blood into a body region, when everything one's ever learned suggests that ice hampers blood flow? Basically, when body tissues are cooled, nerve cells in the chilled area initially force adjacent blood vessels to constrict, leading to a marked reduction in blood flow in that portion of the body. However, if the temperature of the affected area continues to drop, nerve activity is depressed and the blood vessels begin to open up again, bringing in an onslaught of blood which re-warms the tissues, even though cold is still being applied. Once the nerves heat up (because of the inflow of blood), they shut down the blood vessels again, commencing a new cycle of chilling and warming (like the blanching and then reddening of Meeusen's gloveless hands).

The somewhat surprising increase in blood flow to body parts during cryotherapy (or unprotected activity in cold environments) has been documented by a number of researchers. For example, a classic study on the effects of cold application found that blood flow decreased when body regions were subjected to moderate cooling but increased when colder temperatures were reached ('Hyperemia Following Sustained Contractions at Different Temperatures,' Journal of Applied Physiology, Vol. 137, p. 45P, 1957). Another investigation uncovered a large increase in muscular blood flow as tissue temperatures plummeted ('Vascular Reactions of the Human Forearm to Cold,' Clinical Science, Vol. 17, pp. 165-179, 1958). This flood-of-blood effect is the human body's attempt to thwart severe cold injury in a body part subjected to a chilling stress.

Limit ice applications to 10 minutes

If an injured area is compressed and elevated while it is being treated with ice, the potential increase in blood flow can be partially controlled, but Meeusen still believes it is important to strictly limit the time duration of an ice application in order to minimise the chances that a tidal flow of blood will sweep into an injured joint or muscle. Fairly brief applications of ice also diminish the risk of frostbite-like damage to superficial tissues which are in close contact with the ice. For these reasons, the Belgian researcher and physiotherapist suggests that ice applications should be limited to about 10 minutes or so.

Sceptics who contend that it takes longer than 10 minutes to adequately refrigerate an injured inner region of the body may scoff at the idea of applying ice to a damaged area for such a brief period, but Meeusen's research has turned up some interesting facts which support his contention. For one thing, Meeusen has found that when ice is applied to an injured part of the body for 10 minutes and then removed, the temperature of the skin in the affected area will begin to rise immediately after the ice removal, but the temperature of the muscles and other tissues beneath the skin will actually continue to drop for a few minutes, even though the ice has been taken away.

The continued drop in inner muscle temperature, even after the removal of the ice, occurs because the layer of fat found beneath the skin functions as an insulating material which keeps heat from moving inward to the muscle from the skin and outside world. In addition, the blood vessels leading to the damaged muscle stay constricted for a while in response to the icing (they haven't been chilled enough in 10 minutes for them to open up yet), leading to an actual continued decline in muscle temperature.

Enter the lymphatic vessels

Meeusen's careful research has uncovered another important fact: when ice is applied to a body part for a prolonged period, nearby lymphatic vessels begin to dramatically increase their permeability (lymphatic vessels are 'dead-end' tubes which ordinarily help carry excess tissue fluids back into the cardiovascular system). As the lymphatic permeability is enhanced, large amounts of fluid begin to pour from the lymphatics 'in the wrong direction' (into the injured area), increasing the amount of local swelling and pressure and potentially contributing to greater pain ('The Use of Cryotherapy in Sports Injuries,' Sports Medicine, Vol. 3, pp. 398-414, 1986). If the icing goes on for too long, the lymphatic vessels can actually be nearly obliterated, losing all of their fluid to the surrounding tissues and thus failing to carry excess water away from the injured area (6th European Congress of Sports Medicine, Budapest, Hungary, p. 179, 17-20 June, 1991).

That's why Meeusen has settled on his 10-minutes-at-a-time icing recommendation. With the 10 minutes of ice-induced cooling and a couple of minutes of additional cooling (see above) that occur in a damaged muscle or joint after the ice has been removed, an injured athlete can get a nice chilling effect without running the risk of flushing the site of injury with blood and water or freezing some superficial skin and nerve cells to death.

'Instead of putting ice on an injured area for 20 to 25 minutes, three or four times a day, as many athletes do, it's better to ice the damaged region for 10 minutes immediately after the injury, remove the ice for about 30 minutes, and then reapply it for 10 additional minutes. Repeat this cycle of about two 10-minute icings per hour as often as possible during the first 24 to 48 hours after an injury. Then, use the same technique (two 10-minute icings separated by a 30-minute break) about three to five times a day until the injury resolves itself,' recommends Meeusen.

Be wary of refrigerant gels

What kind of ice therapy should be employed? 'Ice packs are very practical to use, and an ice massage will produce a rapid and profound cooling. Because of their potentially extreme temperatures (as low as minus 20 degrees Centigrade), refrigerant gels should be used with extreme caution: always place a towel between the gel and your skin,' suggests the Belgian researcher. 'Remember that the main effect of 'cooling' sprays is actually the easing of pain; they produce only a temporary chilling of the skin and do not lower the temperature of the deeper tissues,' says Meeusen.

Here's a tip concerning an easy and practical way to apply ice to an injury: simply fill a styrofoam cup with water, place it in the freezer section of your refrigerator, and remove the cup once the water has frozen solid. Peel away the styrofoam around the top of the cup, exposing a solid 'bulb' of pure ice. Massage the injured area of your body with this bulb for 10 minutes, as suggested by Meeusen, and then repeat the massage 30 minutes after the end of this first ice application. Continue in the manner recommended by Meeusen, replacing your styrofoam-cup cryotherapeutic device as often as needed.

Cryotherapy is not new: the famous Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC) knew about the benefits of placing ice or snow on injured regions of the body. None the less, we are continuing to refine the manner in which ice is used therapeutically. Meeusen's research suggests that ice should be used often and for brief 10-minute intervals, rather than for more prolonged periods of time. It's a good recommendation. After all, overly long applications of ice can result in frostbite injury to the skin, nerve damage, and increased swelling and inflammation. The next time you injure yourself during your sporting activity (or even during every-day life), try Romain Meeusen's 10-minute ice applications, along with compression and elevation of the injured area, if possible. By using ice in this way, you won't chill your chances of a quick recovery.

Jim Bledsoe

Article's website.


What is the RICE Technique?

The R.I.C.E technique is the gold standard treatment of acute sporting injuries.The most important time in the treatment of acute sporting injuries is in the first 24-48 hours. When soft tissue damage occurs, for example, when a muscle tears, blood vessels rupture and the injury site begins to swell. This increase in blood volume in the area can cause cell death by what is known as secondary hypoxic injury. Thus, every effort should be made to control excessive bleeding.

The R.I.C.E technique involves all the components that are needed to prevent further injury to the damaged site immediately after the injury has been sustained. If applied correctly and in time the R.I.C.E technique can greatly reduce the recovery time of the athlete. In order to have a full understanding of the therapeutic mechanisms behind the R.I.C.E method, a knowledge of the body's intrinsic reaction to tissue damage, the inflammatory response, is needed. The letters R.I.C.E are abbreviations for:





Each component functions to help limit swelling and decrease pain of the injury.


Rest is the first line of action for any sporting injury. It does not only refer to a prolonged period of time following the injury but also relates to resting immediately from sporting activities. An athlete must know when to stop training -repetitive minor injuries can commonly result in a large scale injury that could have been prevented by adequate rest and treatment.

If an injury is sustained during sporting activity some athletes have a tendency to 'run it off'. This implies that with increased exercise the pain and injury will simply go away. In a lot of cases, nothing could be further from the truth. It may be possible that by continuing to exercise the athletes pain may seem less intense. This may be due to a number of factors. During exercise, nerve fibres that respond to mechanical signals such as touch can over-ride the impulses from the pain nerve fibres- a phenomenon known as the pain gate theory. In addition other factors such as the player's mentality can all play a part in over-riding the pain- however the tissue itself is still damaged and continued activity could cause serious further injury.


Ice therapy also known as cryotherapy is one of the most widely used treatment modalities used for acute sports injuries. It is cheap, easy to use and requires little time to prepare. The application of ice to an injury,in the acute phase can substantially decrease the extent of the damage. It achieves this in a number of different ways:

Decreases the amount of bleeding by vasoconstriction into the injury site and so lessens swelling

Reduces pain

Reduces muscle spasm

Reduces the risk of cell death by decreasing the rate of metabolism

Ice is usually applied to the injured site by means of a bag filled with crushed ice which is wrapped in a damp towel. The ice should be left in place for approximately 15-20 minutes. A more detailed overview on the correct use of ice therapy and the indications for its use are available on the application page.


Applying compression to a wound has the effect of preventing excessive swelling occurring and should be applied for about 24-48 hours from the onset of injury. Compression of the limb functions to increase the pressure within the tissue thus narrowing the blood vessels. This slows down the inflammatory process and so prevents excessive edema building up within the joint. This edema, when present, can severely affect the functional ability of the limb. Compression can be applied by a number of means.

The most effective of these is by using a compression bandage which is an elasticized tube-like bandage that simply fits around the affected limb. The advantages of the compression bandage are that it is easy to apply and the elastic provides the sufficient pressure needed to stop some od the bleeding in the area.

Alternatively a regular bandage can be applied to the area however care should be taken not to over-tighten the bandage as this will contribute to tissue death. If the peripheral limbs become discoloured or become cold then it is possible that the bandage is too tight. Bandaging should begin below the injured site with each layer overlapping the underlying layer.

Compression can also be applied with the ice-pack itself, either manually or by wrapping the ice pack in bandage.


Elevation of the injured limb allows gravity to draw the fluid away from the injured site. This aids in decreasing the swelling and so can decrease pain associated with this edema. In lower limb injuries try and keep the ankle above the level of the hip. Upper limb injuries can be elevated by use of pillow or sling. The injured limb should be elevated for as long as possible throughout the day for the first 48 hours.

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