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Why ice delays healing and extends periods of pain

Why ice delays healing and extends periods of pain

If you ever watched Game of Thrones, you know about the White Walkers. And if you know about the White Walkers, you know that ice is for dead people.

Ice and cold acts in the body as it does in nature. It freezes things, slows molecules down enough to stagnate. Just as water in a river slows to a stop, so can our blood. When a donor organ becomes available to donate, it is placed in below freezing temperature to preserve the vitality of the organ. This is because cold slows down metabolism and, thus, minimizes cell death. While that may seem like a beneficial mechanism to extend the viability of such tissues, slowing cellular metabolism is behind quite a few of the conditions that disrupt people’s health.

Slowing metabolic processes will slow healing. And inhibited blood flow will restrict tissue and organ functions. Some of the problems resulting from slow, stagnant blood flow include injuries that do not heal, pain and stiffness in joints and muscles, painful periods for those who menstruate, and even digestive disorders such as chronic bloating and abdominal pain. I will talk about the latter in a subsequent article.

kasey mckenney
Authored by: Kasey McKenney,
L.Ac., MSTOM, Dipl. O.M. (NCCAOM)®

The RICE (rest, ice, compress, elevate) method for treating injuries first came on the scene when Dr. Gabe Mirkin published his sports medicine book in 1978… over 40 years ago. He has since renounced the method – realizing that it can, in fact, delay healing. Ice constricts blood vessels, slows blood flow as we have discussed, and slows cell metabolism. When tissue is injured, the body responds with a natural cascade of healing and initiates helpful inflammatory pathways. Vasodilation is required to increase the permeability of blood vessels so that larger cytokines and metabolic waste particles may move across the membranes. If we ice the injury again and again, we are bound to slow healing.

If ice is used in contrast with heat, blood can indeed be flushed through an area in a beneficial way. This contrast treatment is seen in various athletic facilities and is why it feels so good to get out of an ice bath, step into the sun or temperate weather, and feel the blood rushing back into your limbs. This and compression helps move blood across membranes so that the lymph system can carry away metabolic waste and new blood can bring needed nutrients to the area.

Ice is helpful to dull pain by numbing an area or when the injury is acute, swollen, and hot. Most aches and pains that come into an acupuncture clinic are those that have been sustained over a much longer period of time. Those injuries need warmth, smooth and supple blood flow through the dry, stagnant tissues, and the nutrient-dense blood that comes with that blood flow. One of the first and easiest pieces of education that I have for my patients with such complaints is this: ice is for White Walkers and dead people. It’s not helping your pain. Avoid it and get in for some Bucktown acupuncture that will relax your tissues and direct blood flow where it needs to go.

***Every person’s condition is specific and no overarching advice will apply to everyone. It is recommended to see a healthcare professional for specific diagnosis and targeted treatment.***

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