When to Use Ice or Heat

For years, the go-to medical treatment for bumps, bruises, sprains, strains, and pains was ice.  And for all these years, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine do our best to convince people otherwise.

One of the 1800-year-old books we study in Chinese medicine school is called the “Shang Han Lun,” which is roughly translated as “On Cold Damage.”  The theory is that from our environment or from organ weaknesses, coldness is the root cause of several chronic illnesses:  arthritis being chief among them, but also including chronic allergy problems, digestive weakness, and skin problems.   A body that succumbs to cold damage is fatigued, retains water, and becomes ill easily.  There is usually pain, and the pain increases with cold weather.

Most arthritis pain is diagnosed as “wind-cold-damp Qi” by acupuncturists.  Most arthritic joints are areas that have old injuries:  repetitive movements or sprains, stitches or surgical sites can be weakened areas that are more susceptible to chronic pain.  By introducing unnaturally cold temperatures to these weakened areas, you invite “Evil Qi” into your joints.

Don’t laugh:  “Evil Qi” is not something I made up!  It’s a long-standing theory in Chinese medicine.

Cold is one of the elements that you don’t want to introduce on a regular basis into your joints.

You can think about it like this:  cold causes things to contract, right?  Contraction of your blood vessels causes pain, right?  So…cold causes pain.

The argument in Western medicine has been the opposite.  A hurt joint has inflammation (heat injury) and the ice counteracts inflammation.

As with most Western medical solutions, the problems are this:

  1. Short-term thinking, not long-term health.
  2. Blanket solution regardless of the individual.

Zhang Zhong-Jing author of the Shang Han Lun

Actually, inflammation is how your body heals itself.  Cells are rushing to the injured area to promote circulation and regeneration.   The problem with inflammation is that it hurts.  Also, you also don’t want the inflammation process to go on for too long without signs of progress.  

Better ways to reduce inflammation slowly and naturally are:

  • gentle movements or stretches
  • acupuncture
  • eating a low-sugar, high-nutrient diet; eat fresh foods, not pre-packaged foods
  • drink plenty of water

Ice artificially stops the inflammation process.  Why interfere with millions of years of evolution?  

In fact, there was an interesting study done in 2011 on rats, where the rats sustained injuries to their tiny rat muscles (I don’t want to think about how they did that) and then were divided into 2 groups:  one received ice and the other didn’t.

Influence of Icing on Muscle Regeneration After Crush Injury to Skeletal Muscles in Rats

TIME AFTER INJURY NO ICING GROUP ICING GROUP
12 hours Macrophages were found within the necrotic muscle fibers (Macrophage migration to an injured site to phagocytose the necrotic muscle fibers is essential for “clean-up”) Fewer macrophages were found within the necrotic muscle fibers
Day 3 Regenerating muscle cells present Reduced regenerating muscle cells
Day 4 Normal sized muscle cells produced Smaller sized regenerating muscle cells
Day 14 Normal maturation of the regenerating muscle fibers Maturation of the regenerating was visibly reduced
Day 28 Cross-sectional area of the regenerating muscle was 65% greater than the icing groupCollagen fibers were seen only among the bundles of muscle fibers as it is seen in healthy muscles Regenerating muscle fibers was significantly less in the icing group (P < 0.01)Abnormal collagen formation where collagen fibers surrounded each muscle fiber

The iced group healed much slower.  The ice actually interfered with the healing process.

Thousands of years ago, icing an injury was an unheard-of process, and even some of my Chinese professors would say that even drinking ice in your water or tea is like poisoning yourself.  They were probably right!

2 Comments

  1. Love this! Glad I never put ice on my injurys, no wonder I’m unstoppable ;P

    Reply
  2. Thank you.

    Reply

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