Healthy Living YMCA Health and Fitness

Why you should ditch your ice pack

An ice pack rests against a pair of sneakers

Back in 2014, the guy who invented RICE publicly declared that he was wrong.

Since 1978, when Dr. Gabe Mirkin first came up with the acronym, we’ve all been Resting, Icing, Compressing, and Elevating our injured joints and aching muscles. But new evidence shows that, in the majority of cases, this protocol hurts more than it helps.

When you sustain an injury like, say, an ankle sprain, your body sends a bunch of cells, proteins, minerals, and other “inflammatory” stuff to the affected area to help it heal. Swelling and pain are the typical results. If you ice that sprained ankle, both the swelling and the pain typically go down. That’s why sports medicine physicians have been preaching about RICE for decades: pain is objectively undesirable, and we all thought swelling was bad too.

Pain is still undesirable, but it turns out that swelling’s not all bad. When you slap an ice pack on your sprained ankle, the blood vessels from your mid-foot to lower calf become constricted, limiting your blood flow. Without blood rushing to the site of the injury, your body can’t send in all those healthy, inflammatory cells it needs to heal. And even when you take the ice pack off after the typically recommended 15 minutes, your blood vessels don’t open up again for several hours. In effect, icing your sprained ankle is actually sabotaging your body’s natural attempts to heal it.

So what are you supposed to do instead? That depends on the type of injury or pain you’re dealing with.

Waking up sore the day after a tough workout is generally a good thing. If you usually reach for your ice pack in an effort to alleviate particularly tender muscles, try a strategy that promotes blood flow instead. Taking a warm bath, getting a massage, or going for a long walk will help your muscles get the nutrients and oxygen they need to recover.

But if your soreness lasts beyond a few days, or if you feel sharp, intense pain, you’re in different territory. Check in with your personal trainer, doctor, or physiotherapist to make sure nothing more serious is going on.