Cryotherapy & The Ice Bucket Challenge

Open a tab up beside this blog and then log into your Facebook account. Now if you start to scroll down I can almost guarantee you are looking at your friends and family covering themselves in a bucket of ice cold water. 

Of course I’m referring to the Ice Bucket Challenge created in order to raise money and awareness for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and motor neurone disease. This isn’t the first time humans have decided to submerge themselves in ice though – and I’m not talking about David Blaine. In sports and physiotherapy the idea of cryotherapy has existed much longer.

Cryotherapy is based on providing therapy through the use of low temperatures – often including the use of ice. Its aims include to reduce:

  • Inflammation
  • Levels of pain
  • Spasms
  • Tissue’s metabolic rate (i.e. cell growth and reproduction)

One aspect of cryotherapy includes cold compression therapy which comes from the RICE acronym used by trainers to treat acute soft tissue damage – Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.

Ice is used in this form of treatment with 3 main aims:

  • Relieve pain
  • Reduce Swelling
  • Decrease blood flow to the tissue

It’s recommended that ice be applied to the injured area for no more than around 20 minutes because after that time your body will have reacted to the cold application and the effects won’t be as great. So cycling 20 minute applications over a number of days is advised.

The second part of cold compression therapy uses compression to increase pressure in order to hinder any loss of fluid, preventing swelling.

This method of treatment can be used for a wide range of injuries, including muscle/ligament strains and sprains, as well as pulled ligaments and muscles too. It’s important to stress this is treatment for acute soft tissue damage following exercise – of course if you are worried that you have picked up a serious injury you should consult a doctor to find the most suitable course of treatment.

There are many different methods of applying ice to injured tissue. The traditional method is to simply wrap up ice in a tea towel – simple, but effective. It’s important to use a barrier between the ice and your skin (e.g. the tea towel) because otherwise you risk getting frostbite-like effects as a result of direct contact to the ice over a period of time.

Naturally over time people have noticed the tendency to put a bag of peas on a sprain and have tried to make money off it. As a result you can now access a huge amount of different products all designed around cryotherapy. Ice packs, wraps and gels are all available at relatively low prices and can be stored fairly simply in your freezer.

The other main treatment is the use of an ice bath, and this is becoming more and more popular. Andy Murray is an example of a professional athlete who has praised the ice bath and stressed its importance to his success in tennis. You do have to be careful with ice baths though. Some controversy has arisen about using ice baths because you need to make sure you aren’t submerging yourself in that much ice for too long. As such I would never recommend the use of an ice bath unless you have been specifically advised to use one by an industry professional.

So maybe the ALS/MND Ice Bucket Challenge wasn’t created to treat sporting injuries, but it is doing a hell of a job for a great cause.

And please remember if you have any sporting injury, remember to get it checked out by a doctor so that you are sure to use the correct method of treatment!

Ollie Lawrence
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