At some point, icing down injuries became conventional wisdom. Not so in Chinese Medicine. A funny expression sums up our perspective–“ice is for dead people.” Ice is rarely used on injuries and is thought to cause chronic problems later on. “But how can that be?”, you ask. “My doctors and everyone else tell me that if something hurts I should put ice on it. Well, what am I supposed to do now?”
Why Ice is Not The Answer
Ice is quite useful for preserving things in a static state but it doesn’t help damaged tissue repair itself. In Chinese medicine, there is a saying: “where there is pain, there is no free flow; where there is free flow, there is no pain.” Ice essentially stops the free flow of essential blood and lymph and it causes the blood vessels and soft tissue to contract. This inhibits the restoration of normal circulation, which is critical for healing! Extensive use of ice is believed to cause weakness and arthritis-like pain later in life.
So Why Does Everyone Use Ice?
Ice is used because it is thought to reduce inflammation, reduce pain, reduce swelling and promote healing. Ice certainly halts the inflammatory process and temporarily reduces pain, but the question is, do we really want to stop this? The stiffening and spasm of soft tissue, often resulting in pain, is the body’s attempt to prevent you from further damaging the already injured tissue. The inflammatory process is how the body heals itself. Your tissue won’t heal without inflammation. Yes, it seems counterintuitive. Stopping the inflammatory process with ice is essentially preventing proper healing.
A natural healthy healing response is one in which inflammation occurs and then is quickly flushed out by the body. Problems occur when this inflammation and swelling ‘get stuck.’ Many people use ice because they think it reduces swelling. Ice does not reduce swelling! The lymphatic system does. So, what does promote lymphatic drainage and reduce swelling? Elevation, compression, massage, and movement (of the muscles) of the affected area do. Essentially, anything that promotes circulation and movement of fluids will help the lymphatic system do its job.
So What Do I Do Instead of Icing?
We don’t want to suppress the inflammatory response, but we do want to flush out that inflammation. We do want to promote circulation and the reuptake of stagnant interstitial fluids (fluids normally inside cells but leak out when the cell walls break after an injury).
The following methods have been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine to speed up healing by increasing blood circulation and lymphatic drainage (the lymph system carries away waste and toxins, like trash collectors). But these methods do not suppress the body’s natural inflammatory response:
Acupuncture or acupressure on specific points that stimulate circulation, increase lymphatic drainage and reduce pain at the site of injury.
- Cupping the local area to draw out and disperse blood and fluid that is blocking normal circulation. This may sound strange but it often reduces pain immediately.
- Self massage with liniments that promote circulation and increase lymphatic drainage.
- Herbal poultices or plasters that reduce inflammation but also stimulate circulation and tissue healing. A famous one, available online or from Chinese Medicine doctors, is called San Huang San.
- Exercises which increase range of motion and strength to restore normal function of the injured area.
So Should I Never Use Ice?
Ice and NSAIDS can be powerful tools to kill pain and reduce inflammation. If your primary goal is to resume intense training or competition immediately then ice will certainly help you do that. If your primary goal is to speed healing, restore full function, and maintain the long-term health of your injured tissue, then just skip the ice.
Over millennia (yes, millennia!) Chinese Medicine has developed liniments (liquid topical remedies) to be used instead of ice. Special herbs help your body reduce inflammation and swelling naturally, along with promote circulation and most importantly reduce pain. The most common and effective is called “Trauma Liniment” and “Three Yellow Powder” (because the primary herbs are yellow in color). These are very inexpensive and readily available at SourcePoint Acupuncture. You will be surprised at how quickly and thoroughly your injuries will heal, along with regular acupuncture treatments, drinking plenty of water, getting enough rest and eating a low-inflammatory diet. It’s how nature intended!’