Okay CXP Nation, so we’re going to be questioning some “age old wisdom” today, and contemplating some of the most effective ways to recover from injury! Let’s talk ‘R.I.C.E’, Ice Baths, Saunas, and even Heat Packs. I gave you Hot vs Cold [Part I – the “Shower Edition”] last time, now get ready for “Part II”…
Time to get crack-a-lackin’!
So, in true CXP-fashion, let’s start by poking the hornets’ nest… let’s challenge the principles and concepts behind the decades-old R.I.C.E. method! Developed back in the late 70’s by the ever venerable, Dr. Gabe Mirkin, whose work in the field of Sports Medicine is somewhat biblical not only in its proportions, but the faith that everyone from fellow sports-related Healthcare Professionals to Weekend Warriors have put in it for decades!
But okay, what the heck does it stand for, right? You’ve probably heard of it already, but it stands for: Rest / Ice / Compression / Elevation – the four-pronged approach that most of us take when it comes to injury recovery. But is there a better way? After all, icing doesn’t actually reduce swelling or even prevent inflammation… What!?? That’s right – you heard me correctly. I said it. Fact is, it only delays the inevitable… (Why do I sound like Agent Smith from the Matrix? Lol).
Really though, the simple fact of the matter is that the body has its processes that it *must* go through in order to recover, and that involves swelling and inflammation [unfortunately]. You simply cannot circumvent the process. Granted, it may alleviate the sensation of pain, but one way or another, your body is going through that healing process.
‘What’s a better approach then, Chris?’, I hear you ask… Well, let’s first be clear – I’m not saying that you should disband with the whole R.I.C.E. method altogether – it largely depends [also] on the type of injury you’ve incurred; acute pain will benefit from icing (for temporary pain relief), and anything skeletal-based (compound fractures, for example) is going to warrant a certain degree of rest (although you wouldn’t apply ice or compression [necessarily] to a bone-related injury).
Even Dr. Mirkin himself acknowledges [through research that has been conducted in the decades since he first coined R.I.C.E] there is now proof that icing and prolonged rest can, in fact, delay recovery!
What the science now shows is that *Active Recovery* is swiftly gaining traction as being a far better means of “speeding” up the healing process, especially when it comes to muscular injuries. If you take a look back at my article: The Stagnating Effects of Inactivity – we can see how the world is coming “full-circle” to the initial findings of the philosophers Plato & Socrates and their observations where they note that:
‘the healthy condition is undermined by inactivity… and to a great extent preserved by exercise and motion… motion is… good… and immobility is bad… Need I speak further of such things as stagnation in air or water, where stillness causes corruption and decay, when motion would keep things fresh…’
See, even centuries ago – in the ancient text Theaetetus [that I’ve just quoted here] – they knew that being bed-ridden was a lacklustre idea, and keeping you’re a$$ moving led to staying fit and healthy!
You’ll always hear me marvel at what an incredible thing of beauty the human body is – the abounding list of things it does that we aren’t even remotely aware of [consciously] is nothing short of remarkable! And the fact is, we can self-heal. Not at the same rate as some creatures on this planet. And if only we could “regenerate”… but simply put – let the body “do its thing” and don’t interfere, but rather, treat things like “business as usual” (within reason), and it will get on and do its job, which is getting you back to 100%!
Again though, to clarify – this is when it comes to “simple” injuries like cuts, bruises, muscle/tendon tears, swelling from inflammation, etc. So clearly, [bone] breakages and anything degenerative is devoid of this by simple laws of biophysics!
Let’s consider some forms of Active Recovery – this will largely depend on WHAT part of you has been injured – but we’ll be thinking: hill walks, swimming, light rowing, basic calisthenics (done safely and to a low intensity), and even Suspension Based Training (like TRX). The key here is to keep the intensity to a minimum, but get in as full/complete a range of motion as your body will allow. Consider it: “auto-regulated physical therapy”… of sorts.
(N.B. If your injury requires *actual* Physical Therapy, you should definitely seek professional help, but then, that should be a given!).
Okay, so… another icy concept we can think about is: Ice Baths! This is a go-to post-exercise ritual for virtually ALL pro-athletes out there; from Strongmen to Olympians, Basketballers to Baseballers, Footballers to Rugby Players. In essence, it’s not so much done for injury recovery though, but more as a preventative measure; certainly, if you read “Part I” (Hot vs Cold: The Benefits of Each) then you’ll already be aware of the benefits of Cold Showers. Same principles apply here for Ice Baths, but the one benefit we’re most concerned with in this context is that of stimulating the immune system!
See, when we have an injury, we need our white blood cell count to be optimal so that our body can engage “repair mode” rapidly and efficiently. By taking regular Ice Baths, these pro-athletes are ensuring that their immune system is primed and ready for whatever they throw at it through their training.
Usually we associate the role of white blood cells with protection against viruses, etc. However, science shows that there is a connection between the “micro-trauma” effect of exercise and T-Cells’ (white blood cells) response to clearing out cellular debris [as part of the reparatory process].
Now then… let’s flip the script – time to think “heat”. What benefits can be gained from sitting in a blazing, *dry* sauna? Well, lots. Fact is, many Scandinavian – and even Asian – countries have long-known of the bountiful health benefits associated with using saunas.
Thing is, a lot of “Western Cultures/Countries” look at [both Steam Rooms and] Saunas as being something of a luxury – something fancy that you “treat yourself” to once every now and again; and unfortunately, this cultural misconception has led to a capitalization of these “hot boxes” in a way that has hyper-inflated the price of them wayyy beyond any degree of reasonability!
See, in the U.S. and UK (for example), you’ll find that almost all ‘Health Clubs’ will distinguish themselves from ‘Gyms’ owing to their inclusion of such “luxurious amenities” such as saunas, steam rooms, and even hot tubs. But then, if you visit a ‘Jjim-jil-bang’ (literally translated as: “heating room” – which are Korean bathhouses), you’ll find that a) they are dirt cheap (you’ll pay as little as $5 for an all-day, all-access pass to use their saunas, herbal baths, ice baths, swimming pools, steam rooms, showers, and more!); and b) it is considered an amenity for people from ALL walks of life (hence the low “barrier-to-entry” when it comes to price). Rather than a luxury, it is viewed more as a natural practice for optimal health – available to all. Meanwhile, these kinds of facilities come with a premium price-tag in the West…
But okay, let’s tear away from the business-side and get back on track. So – again – similar to the benefits I shared in “Part I”, we can take stress relief and reduced muscle soreness as being two major factors here.
The heat from a sauna can also promote the release of endorphins – hence why it is so great post-exercise! So, right off the bat we have one of the body’s very own “feel good” chemicals circulating, as well as improved blood flow also (crucial for muscle repair as nutrients in the blood stream will better reach the muscles that way too).
Sauna heat will also help to flush toxins from the body – this is especially important if you take a multivitamin that has an insane/excessive amount of minerals in it (most don’t, but if you already consume plentiful amounts of foods high in mineral-content, then the extra you get from your average multivitamin could result in levels being too high). Thing is, the body will simply “pee out” excess vitamins… but super high levels of minerals can be harder to get rid of.
More often than not though, our bodies will have a greater need for minerals if you exercise regularly, but just be aware that an excess can be a bad thing here.
There’s also improved cardiovascular function that can come about as a result because in a sauna your heart rate can typically raise from the 60-80 mark up above 100, thus making the heart work harder even when “resting”.
Traditionally – in some parts of the world – they will do “rounds” in the sauna; I remember when I first visited a *kiln-sauna* up in the mountains of Cheung-Chung-Buk-Do (in South Korea), and we would spend several minutes in a very hot sauna, then come out and “cool down”, then the same again in a “fairly hot” one, then cool down again, then in a “warm” sauna, and again – cool down once more. We’d go through a couple of rounds, then actually go EAT, socialize, and after a little break, go back at it for a couple more rounds!
If you think about it, this is kind of like “Interval Training” for the heart… After all, you go into the sauna, your heart rate becomes elevated, come out – it goes down; back in – it goes up, and out again – it goes down. This correlates directly with the principles of Interval Training, only… it’s heat-induced. It’s “Cardio” in the most literal sense possible!
So, finally, let’s talk about Heat Packs…
You’ll find that the pain-alleviation and reduced-muscle-soreness factors are once again in play here; the main difference being that it is more “focused”. Instead of a hot shower or sauna – where you’ll feel the heat all-over – you are localizing the source of pain, and applying direct heat to it. Like with any of these methods we’ve covered here, prolonged exposure is not advised, however, when done for “bouts” they can have a therapeutic effect.
Like I’ve said from the start – although this may provide instantaneous relief (as far as sensation goes), it really doesn’t do much to “speed up” the healing process. Granted, if you think of the simple laws of Thermodynamics, it makes sense that cold induces a slowing-down effect, and heat speeds things up. Although the heat may help sooth [muscular] injuries, it will ultimately have a minimal effect in the way of “accelerating” the repair-mechanisms in the body.
But there you have it – another look at Hot vs Cold, but this time, from the perspective of Injury & Recovery. As always, I hope you got a lot out of this article! Remember: sharing is caring, so if you know anyone who’d benefit from reading this, then flick the link over! I wanna grow the CXP Nation, and help Inform, Educate and Inspire Change around the world – helping spread the word will be a huge benefit for everyone because we can create more awareness in the Health & Fitness space and grow as a more informed community! So, don’t forget to also Follow CXP Fitness on Instagram and Facebook!
In the meantime, be sure to Love Life, and Love Yourself!
Yours in Training,
Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO