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March 3, 2010
Icing is just another placebo
As I hear of our athletes getting in ice baths or watch them put cold packs on their joints, I am amazed about the power of a placebo. A placebo is anything of no real benefit that nevertheless makes people feel better. Yes, I am telling you that the “fairy dust” known as ice won’t cure your problems, whatever ache or injury it is. A 2009 study out of the Pediatric Exercise Research Center at the University Children’s Hospital in Irvine, California actually found several negative effects of icing on athletic performance. While the study did find that local cold-pack application was associated with a slight decline in inflammation there was an even greater decrease in markers that cause inflammation. Furthermore, such icing after training led to increased levels of catabolic hormones, which break down protein and muscle, and a decrease in anabolic hormones that promote muscle and tissue growth. Perhaps the biggest reason that icing has become commonplace in every sport, both as an injury prevention and a cure, is that it provides an analgesic effect, meaning it relieves pain. Unfortunately, a 2003 review out of Auckland University of Technology, found no clear scientific evidence that icing has a beneficial effect on the prevention or reduction of soreness, over than an analgesic effect. So icing can provide a numbing sensation to where it is applied, whether it is full body immersion or direct local application. However, it will not reduce inflammation to help recovery from exercise, thus icing can actually decrease performance in ensuing training bouts. It will also inhibit the gains from the preceding training session by blocking muscle growth. But if you’re competing against our athletes, please continue with those ice baths and those magical “20 minutes” of icing, and we’ll just continue to stress the true keys to performance and injury prevention, good nutrition and smart training.
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March 3, 2010
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9 thoughts on “Icing is just another placebo”

  1. Not to sound like a complete nerd, but do you have the title of the article that came out of the Pediatric Exercise Research Center? Sounds pretty interesting.

  2. As far as compression, a recent review in the Journal Sports Medicine in 2006; 36(9):781-96 attempted to compare multiple recovery modalities between training sessions to see if athletes could benefit from one vs. another. Recovery modalities such as stretching, ice, massage and compression have been purported to enhance the rate of blood lactate removal following exercise, reduce severity and duration of muscle injury and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The researchers found “no substantial evidence to support the use of recovery modalities between training sessions in trained athletes”. The modalities reviewed were massage, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, ice therapy, hot-cold contrast bath therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s), stretching and compression garments. It should be noted that none of the above modalities were detrimental to recovery but did not appear to enhance it.

  3. Phil,

    HRV is improved with cold water immersion and HRV has a strong relationship between the T:C ratio. Even cold showers help with depression. It may not be panacea but the research is clear with secondary edema with severe injury.

  4. Agree on the HRV relationship, albeit indirect, as icing has never been found to increase T:C ratio.

    I also agree in icing’s ability to lower edema but I believe this reduction is actually a negative consequence as it delays healing. Let the body do its job of bringing swelling to an area to heal it.

  5. Phil,

    I didn’t say icing increases T:C ratio, I just said that good HRV is similar to a good T:C ratio and cold water immersion does that. Secondary edema is a problem and the delay from it is worse than letting the body naturally deal with it. Elite sport is hardly natural and good sport starts when good health ends. I don’t think it’s good to ice unless it’s trauma, and most hard workouts are not going to get good responses from ice baths unless you overdosed on volumes.

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