If you were a high school or college athlete, it’s like that any and all injuries you ever incurred were treated with Coach’s surefire remedy: an ice pack. But according to a study published earlier this week, prolonged periods of icing or cooling using therapies like creams and salves may temporarily ease soreness or symptoms of injury…but they might also be counteractive if you intend to keep working out.
Icing, which also goes by the very-cool name “cryotherapy,” has been examined in a variety of studies–most of which have ended with the assertion that more studying is needed. And yet, this remedy is used as something as a cure-all, for pain stemming from everything from tendon injuries and tears to unidentified soreness that isn’t actually related to an injury. It’s also used by many athletes and hardcore fitness buffs at pretty much all times–before, during, and after their workouts. But according to this week’s study, from researchers at the University of Ulster, in Ireland, using ice before and during a workout may actually hinder athletic performance. Athletes who iced, and then returned to their workout, were slower, less coordinated, and less powerful in their movements.
The amount of time spent icing was also an important factor in the study–and one that people frequently get incorrect. Folks who like to affix their ice packs to their sore muscles for long stretches of time may want to take note: exposure to ice for periods of time over 20 minutes, the study showed, created a decrease in strength and, in some cases, dexterity. Which, if you’re, say, cycling or lifting heavy weights, could spell trouble both to you and your muscles.
All of this isn’t to say that ice is useless–it’s definitely still one of the best ways to inexpensively mitigate pain from injuries or exerted muscles, and can bring down inflammation of joints. But warmer muscles move and function more fluidly and with less risk of further injury (that’s why you’re supposed to “warm up,” after all).
If you do use ice, use it for short periods of time–like 4 or 5 minutes–and only do it after you’re finished working out and are prepared to rest. And of course, if you’re concerned about your injury, your best course of action isn’t to head to the freezer, it’s to call your doctor.