Cold Therapy

Written by Devin Flanigan
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Injuries are inevitable when engaging in athletics, no matter how trained or well-equipped an athlete thinks he or she may be. Sooner or later, an ankle will be twisted, a tendon will be overused, or a shoulder will get sore. Even relatively minor instances of pain and tenderness are messages that your body is sending to inform you that some level of damage has occurred.

The most common two words anyone who has ever had an athletic injury hears are these: "Ice it." The traditional prescription for dealing with acute injuries sports the acronym ICE: ice, compression, elevation. Later this mnemonic device transformed into RICE, adding "rest" to these basic commandments.

Nowadays, one is more apt to hear these rules spelled out in a slightly less catchy but definitely more effective way. The recommended course of treatment for acute injuries that a trainer will give you today consists of rest, cold therapy, compression, and elevation. This switch from the specific (ice) to the more general (cold therapy) speaks to the presence of new technologies that allow cold therapy to be delivered through a variety of methods.

Why Cold Therapy?

Sprains, strains and bruises all bring with them broken blood vessels, which in turn lead to pain and swelling of the affected area. The combination of blood escaping from the broken capillaries and the body's instinct to send protective white blood cells to the point of injury results in a build-up of excess fluid. While this was exactly what we needed to happen in our cave-dwelling days in order to rest, heal and survive, this same natural occurrence can be detrimental to the healing process in today's more sophisticated world.

Cold therapy acts as a vasoconstrictor, a stimulus that induces "shrinkage" of the blood vessels in the area to which it is applied. Cold applied in the earliest stages of an injury slows the rush of fluids to the damaged area and dramatically reduces swelling. Elevating the injured limb above the level of the heart and adding compression in the form of a bandage or specially designed brace encourages the reabsorption of the "bad" fluids back into the bloodstream.

Cold also acts as an anesthetic, numbing the pain so the athlete is given much-needed relief from the most troubling symptom of injury. Later in the healing process, while numb from the cold, the athlete is able to complete range-of-motion exercises that help to preserve full functionality of the damaged soft tissue. To prevent frostbite, it is important that ice or cold therapy is removed from the skin soon after numbness is achieved and no later than 20 minutes after application, in any case.

Cold Therapy Options

If using the traditional bag of ice, it is wise to cover the affected area with a layer of clothing or a bandage and not to rest the ice directly on the skin. A bag of frozen vegetables can be equally effective for this purpose, and has the added bonus of being reusable. Modern reusable cold packs usually revert to room temperature after the desired 20 minutes of cold therapy.

It is important to consult a physician when starting any sporting or exercise regimen, to make sure you are in the proper condition for the activity you have chosen. Serious or persistent injuries require professional medical attention and if you are ever in doubt, go see your doctor or pay a visit to the emergency room. For common minor athletic injuries, however, cold therapy is an effective way to manage pain and promote quick healing.


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