There is an ongoing debate in the athletic medicine community over the merits and pitfalls of using ice on sore muscles. When should an athlete apply cold treatments to their muscles versus hot, and in what sequence? Should they apply temperature treatments, either hot or cold, immediately before a workout, or immediately after? Should they apply treatments evening before, or the evening after?
A research study published recently in an Australian sports medicine journal took up the issue of mid-activity cryotherapy and reported some interesting results. Chris Bleakley’s “Should Athletes Return to Sport After Applying Ice?” asks whether or not it is beneficial to apply ice or other cold treatments like Biofreeze or eyes to muscles during the course of physical activity, i.e. during half-time at a soccer game, etc.
Bleakley’s study is a literature review of existing research available on the topic. He cites a total of 25 studies that test what athletes experience immediately after applying ice treatments to their muscles and then returning to physical activity. Over three quarters of the studies Bleakley examine described a decrease in muscle activity resulting from the application of ice to muscles mid-way through a work out. Some athletes even reported a loss of dexterity as the result of icing during physical activity.
At the study’s conclusion, it suggests that athletes should avoid interrupting periods of sustained physical activity with lengthy muscle cooling sessions during the course of the work out if possible. If absolutely necessary, the cooling sessions should be restricted to the shortest intervals of time possible.
What does Bleakley consider a ‘long’ interval of muscle cooling versus a ‘short’ one? His research restricts itself to experiments consisting of twenty-minute icing sessions or longer. For this reason, he admits that while his research suggests with some certainty that “long” sessions (more than twenty minutes) reduce performance, the study cannot comfortably suggest any conclusions regarding “short” (less than twenty minute) sessions.
An important factor that Bleakley does not address in his study is an account for athletes’ motivations for icing their muscles down in the first place. Generally, ice is used to reduce the amount of pain that an injured, or arthritic area of the body causes during physical performance.
Many of the ameliorating effects of icing treatment, however, can be circumvented by certain analgesic solutions such as Biofreeze. Through the use of menthol and other related treatments, these products potentially achieve the objective of icing, which is to reduce pain, without any of the other negative aspects (reduction of performance) that ice necessarily produces on muscle tissue.