Does ice heal inflammation?

That's what so many ice pack advertisements seem to be saying, but some researchers think that more time on the ice after an injury could actually worsen your recovery.

But the problem isn't with the ice itself. It's with what happens to our bodies when we use it incorrectly.

While icing an injury may sound smart at first, it actually has the opposite effect on the injury. It makes it worse, prolonging healing time and increasing your risk of other injuries as you try to play through pain.

The best way to heal from an injury is with heat, not cold. That means taking a hot shower after working out (not an ice bath) and applying warm compresses to injuries.

ice and inflammation
ice and inflammation

The inflammatory response is one of the ways our bodies heal themselves. It's part of the immune system and involves recruiting white blood cells to the place where they're needed. When you sprain your ankle, for example, these cells rush out to form a protective layer over it. 

This protection prevents germs from invading the injured area and causing infection. It also encourages the blood vessels to grow new blood vessels and increases cell turnover. That's how your ankle gets its cast of immune cells, which eventually peel away as the injury heals.

But ice has a positive side too: it can reduce pain. And that's exactly what it seems like it does when you first put an ice pack on an injury. The cold numbs the nerves, lessening the pain you feel in your ankle or wrist or wherever you've injured yourself.

But that's not how it works long-term. When you expose tissues to ice, the opposite happens. The cold causes blood vessels to constrict and reduces inflammation that way instead of through and horses put cold packs on injuries, people soak their hands in ice water to increase grip strength and horses rest an injured leg in a bucket of ice. Or does putting something cold on an injury reduce or even prevent swelling?

The common knowledge that "cold" reduces inflammation is prevalent around the world. Athletes place crushed ice onto overstretched ligaments and muscle tears, patients submerge inflamed ankles in buckets of ice water, handball players soothe their hands with ice cubes after they lose their grip. Ice baths are used even by the world's most famous tennis player to recover from injuries. What if this is all wrong?

Today we know that inflammation is not directly linked to tissue damage. The body's response to an injury is not proportional to the amount of tissue damage present. There are other important factors that cause inflammation, but they are all interrelated.

The reason why ice works against your muscles and tendons is that cold has a vasoconstrictive effect on blood vessels. By applying ice to an injury, you'll reduce the amount of blood that flows through it. The body does not like this lack of blood supply because it needs to bring in white blood cells and oxygen, which are the building blocks of the recovery process.

So what do we know so far? At first glance, ice works by a numbing pain. But what happens after that? Ice reduces inflammation and therefore slows down the recovery process.

How does sleep affect inflammation?

The inflammatory process is highly connected with our sleep patterns. If you have poor sleeping habits, you are more likely to feel the symptoms of inflammation throughout your body.

Sometimes it's hard to resist the temptation of falling into bed shortly after experiencing stress or exhaustion. That kind of attitude will only set you up for trouble because stress increases levels of hormones that increase inflammation.

So what should you do? The best thing for your body would be to stay away from stress and exhaustion as much as possible, but if that's not an option, make sure you get enough rest.

If you don't sleep well, the amount of pro-inflammatory molecules in your blood will increase. If we take a look at the whole picture, we can see that sleep deprivation has a negative effect on your recovery.

To sum it up, inflammation is part of your body's natural response to an injury or trauma, but if you want to speed up recovery, avoiding ice and getting enough sleep are certainly not bad ideas.

In addition to exhausting yourself and not sleeping well, other things trigger inflammation such as high amounts of stress, obesity, lack of physical activity, and cancer.

Does stress increase inflammation?

Stress is one of the most important factors that affect the inflammatory process. If you're constantly battling stress, your body will experience an overproduction of CRH and cortisol which in turn reduces levels of interleukin-10 and increases expression of NFκB and TNF-α. When we think about inflammation, we usually associate it with injuries and tissue damage, but sometimes chronic stress can also affect your immune system.

The body treats stress like a bacterial infection, so the stress eventually leads to an increase in pro-inflammatory molecules. One of these is the nuclear factor kappa B (NFκB) which is normally present in all cells. However, under conditions of chronic stress, the cells that produce it start to die and the NFκB goes into the blood.

If we look at this from a different perspective, we can see that stress inhibits your body's ability to fight against bacteria and infections. This obviously has a negative effect on healing, especially if you're suffering from an injury or trauma. It would seem that stress has a negative impact on inflammation, but that's not the case.

The key to managing stress is to find balance in your life. If you reduce the levels of stress hormones in your body, you'll also decrease the amount of pro-inflammatory molecules. It's not an easy process because chronic stress affects both our mental and physical health.