Ask the Expert: What Does Icing Do?

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We've all seen the elites do it-- after a hard run, they sink into a tub of ice and though their faces display more shock than relief, there must be something to it. So we turned to our resident expert, Brian at Athletico, to tell us more about what icing does, and why we should consider it. 

"Icing in my opinion, is your friend," Brian says. Though some don't care for it, icing does serve its purpose.

"Icing causes temperatures to drop, and it causes a physiological response in your circulatory system-- your blood vessels and capillaries constrict. Icing is intended to control inflammation in an inflammatory response, so if you're getting shin splints (tendonitis for the most part) that's an inflammation of a tissue structure," explains Brian. 

"When you have inflammation, you have excess fluid, and with that fluid comes healing agents," Brian added. "That’s where you get the debate of whether icing is good or bad—when icing, you're going to inhibit that inflammatory response and you're telling your body not to send those healing agents to the part of your body that’s injured."

But there's another, more painful side to that excess fluid, according to Brian. "That fluid can irritate your muscles and nerve structures, and the body interprets that as pain," he elaborated. "So icing can be used to control inflammation and pain, but it can also inhibit the body's ability to heal. It's kind of like when you get a fever, your body is trying to kill whatever's attacking you. When you have an injury your body's going to protect that area."

So which is better? Healing with pain, or controlling inflammation? Is there a way to get the best of both worlds? 

"My opinion is that you want to control pain and inflammation, but you don’t want to stop them," says Brian. "When you have a minor injury, you want to control that inflammation to a point where you can continue to move, because when you can't move, things start to shut down on you. But if it's something like an ankle sprain you should seek medical attention because that's more serious."

"When you're talking about minor aches and pains from impact or vibration and there's no sign of tearing of muscles or ligaments or tendons, it’s good to move," adds Brian.

So the bottom line is: if you're icing regular wear-and-tear, like sore knees or shins, it's perfectly fine to do it to control pain and allow you to keep moving. But don't take it too far with a more serious injury, because that can lead to stress fractures or worse. 

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