Ice versus heat

by | Mar 17, 2022 | Exercise, Fitness & Rehab, Joint Health | 1 comment

For many years, there’s been a standard way to treat athletic injuries. If you sprain your ankle, twist your knee, or tear a muscle in your shoulder, the established protocol has been R-I-C-E, which stands for Rest…Ice…Compression….Elevation.

The RICE protocol was popularized in sports medicine books going back to the 1970’s, and has taken on a continuing life of its own without being subject to scientific scrutiny.

It turns out that the RICE protocol backfires.

The body has its own ways of bouncing back from injury. It begins with the process of inflammation. Inflammation brings more blood to the area and the blood carries with it the elements needed for healing. At first, the injured area swells up, but eventually, as healing proceeds, the swelling settles down.

If you use ice on an injured area, or compress it, the swelling goes down more quickly, so it may seem that the healing process is quicker. 

But it’s only an illusion. You’ve just set your body up for incomplete, partial healing.

Rest can also backfire. Of course, you don’t want to continue with movements that hurt or make the injury worse. But in order to heal properly, your muscles and ligaments need to experience biomechanical stress. That’s how the collagen fibers in your connective tissues will know how to line up for maximal structural strength. Movement also helps pump waste materials back into your circulation via the lymph channels. The sooner you can get back to easy, flowing, functional movement the better.

Instead of ice, moist heat can help. Moist heat has a more potent effect than dry heat. It improves blood flow to the injured area, helping the healing process along even more. You can purchase a heating pad with an insert that you moisten before applying the pad to your skin. Or, just moisten a washcloth, place it over the affected area, and then place a heating pad over it.

Apply moist heat for up to 15 minutes at a time, then give your tissues 10-20 minutes to recalibrate before re-applying.

Skip the RICE — get back into action as soon as you can!

Dr. Lavine has been an innovator in the use of movement and touch to promote health since 1981. He practices in New York City and Princeton, NJ.

1 Comment

  1. Anahi Galante

    Absolutely accurate! With my current troubles in lower back and hips, moist heat is proving to be the best approach. THANK YOU, Ron!


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