This guest post was written by Kimberly Christen. She is a Senior majoring in Kinesiology at Michigan State University.
If you are an athlete or engage in physical activity on a regular basis it is likely that at some point you will suffer from some sort of injury, be it minor or complex. Minor injuries, such as strains or sprains are commonly experienced and can often be treated without the care of a professional. Minor injuries, which can also be considered soft tissue injuries, consist of damage to the muscles, ligaments or tendons to a certain area of the body. With proper care techniques you can take care of a minor strain or sprain yourself and get back to a normal functioning level.
There are many ways you can treat a minor injury but one simple way is to use the acronym RICE, which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. RICE aims to manage discomfort of an injury and any internal bleeding that may have occurred along with it. Rest is an important part of the recovery process and prevents the injury from worsening. Without rest, continued strain and stress is placed on the injury which can lead to increased inflammation, pain and will possibly cause further damage to the affected area. There is also a risk of abnormal repair or chronic inflammation as a result of not resting. The period at which one should rest varies from injury to injury but can typically be described as when the injured person is able to use the affected limb with the majority of function and pain essentially gone.
Using ice to help recover injuries, also known as cryotherapy, helps to reduce inflammation and pain that comes along with numerous soft tissue injuries. When a part of the body is injured an increased amount of blood is sent to that area of the body in order to aid in the healing process, however, this increased amount of blood is what causes swelling. Ice lowers the temperature of that certain area of the body by constricting the diameter of the blood vessels around it. This reduces blood flow and controls the amount of swelling that takes place. Ice also has an effect on the enzymes and coenzymes in the body which activates energy transformation that influences healing processes in the body. Temperature has a big effect on these enzymes, the lower the temperature of the injury the lower the rate of activity. Lowering the temperature of an injury also decreases the rate at which oxygen is dropped off at the injury site. So if applying ice to an injury decreases energy transformation needed for healing and inhibits oxygen deposits that are also needed for healing then why, might one ask, is ice good for injuries even if it reduces swelling?
The pressure on the cells that is created when the injury is swollen is the main reason for our concern when it comes to swelling. This increased pressure makes it harder for the cells to receive oxygen and nutrients which can cause the cells to die and lead to permanent damage if left untreated. Ice can act as a pain reliever as well by numbing sore tissues. Ice slows the nerve impulses in the affected area, which interrupts the pain spasm reaction between the nerves.
Compression is another method used to aid in the recovery of an injury. You can use an elastic bandage to wrap around the affected area as long as it’s not too tight. Compressing the injury helps to stimulate blood flow. This extra blood flow helps to expedite the removal of metabolic waste and re-introduce the substances muscles require to rebuild.
Elevation is another method that aids in the recovery process of an injury. Since swelling is caused by blood accumulating near the injury, it is important to have a way to drain this blood away from the affected area. Elevation utilizes gravity to increase venous return of blood to the systemic circulation.
It is important to note that RICE is a good method of treatment for minor injuries such as strains or sprains, however, major injuries or injuries that do not respond well to RICE need medical attention and should receive additional treatment. For minor injuries though, RICE is a good method to use in order to manage any discomfort and reduce swelling in the comfort of your own home.
If your injury is chronic (lasting longer than 10-14 days) you may need to begin to use less ice and begin to use heat at times. Consult with your physical therapist or health care professional for advice on whether you should continue using ice for more than 2 weeks after your injury.