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Exercise vs. injury: When should you use ice for recovery?

Man icing his knee - Ice pack or ice bath?
Use an ice pack on small areas when you need to decrease swelling and numb pain.

You have just put in a hard workout session and don’t want to feel the effects of leg day tomorrow. Soaking in ice baths is common for college and professional athletes after games, but is it helpful for a weekend warrior?

Cold decreases pain and swelling

When you have an injury blood rushes to the area and creates swelling. “When you put ice on an area, it helps constrict blood vessels so less blood flows to the area and decreases the amount of swelling,” said Benjamin Reich, D.P.T., a Marshfield Clinic Health System physical therapist. “It also creates a numbing effect to help decrease pain.”

Choosing between an ice pack and ice bath comes down to the area effected and ease of use. If the area is too large or hard to wrap, submerging it is an effective alternative. With either method, avoid using for more than 10-20 minutes at a time. Longer increases chance for frostbite or hypothermia.

Ice baths can reduce strength gains

Reich says that new research is showing that ice baths may not be the best option after exercise. A few studies show that subjects who did an active recovery after exercise to cool down saw greater increases in strength gains than those who used an ice bath for recovery.

“The thought process behind these findings is cold can restrict blood flow and muscles need blood to recover better,” Reich said. “When we go through that inflammation process, it triggers satellite cells, which help with muscle regrowth.”

In cases of injuries and major trauma, cold is recommended since too much swelling can slow healing. For any chronic conditions, heat is a better option. If you have any lingering pain, Reich recommends seeing a physical therapist who may be able to recommend stretches to decrease muscle tightness.

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