De-Iced: The End of the Cold War

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by TONY BONVECHIO|MS, CSCS

De-Iced: the End of the Cold War

Why the world’s leaders in health, performance and rehab are abandoning ice as a recovery tool

De-Iced: The End of the Cold War
It takes a strong man to admit when he’s wrong. So when the man who coined the term R.I.C.E. (short for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation, which has been the gold standard for treating injuries for over 30 years) admitted he was wrong, the sports medicine world’s collective heart skipped a beat.

This is not a battle of economic or political differences, but rather a tug of war over the long-held superstition of icing.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin, who first mentioned R.I.C.E. in his 1978 publication, The Sportsmedicine Book, is the godfather of ice age, and brought the practice of icing to the masses. Harvard-educated and a practicing clinician for over 50 years, Mirkin shook the sports medicine world on March 16, 2014, when he posted an article on his website admitting that he’d been wrong all along, particularly about the use of ice for treating injuries.

“There really wasn’t too much science and no one understood very much [about icing],” Mirkin said of his days as a student at Harvard University in the 1950s. “Since then, I’ve noticed that several studies have come out that showed the ‘R’ and the ‘I’ are just incorrect.”

Even still, the world of sports performance has plunged deep into the throes of a cold war. This is not a battle of economic or political differences, but rather a tug of war over the long-held superstition of icing. While one side clings desperately to the traditional practice of applying ice to a multitude of aches and pains, the anti-icing brigade grows larger by the day, refusing to rest until the opposition’s arguments have melted away completely. And with some of the world’s leading experts on performance and recovery shielding themselves from the freeze, it’s hard to ignore the signs that the cold war may be over soon.

The Anti-Ice Man

The Anti-Ice Man
Gary Reinl, a lanky fellow never without running shoes and a ballcap atop his head of wispy grey hair, assumes the role of this cold war’s General Patton. Reinl’s book, Iced! The Illusionary Treatment Option, serves as the battle plan for the legions of sports medicine practitioners who have banded together against the use of ice as a recovery tool for athletes and Average Joes alike.

Upon its release in 2013, Reinl’s book sent shockwaves through the sports medicine community as one of the fiercest jabs to date against the widely-accepted practice of putting ice on everything that hurts.

“It’s a myth,” Reinl said bluntly. “There is not a single shred of evidence in the medical literature that says that ice improves tissue regeneration or speeds the recovery process.”

A thorough combing of the literature confirms Reinl’s claim and yields virtually zero studies that validate the use of ice for healing. On the contrary, a 2012 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine stated that, despite the popularity of ice therapy, there are no clinical studies proving its effectiveness. More recently, a 2013 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that not only did icing not enhance recovery from strength training, it delayed it.

Says Reinl: “[T]he people who believe that ice somehow aids the recovery process simply believe a myth. It’s not true and it never was true.”
During his 40-year career in sports medicine and advocating for a pair of electrical stimulation units used by over 80 professional sports teams, Reinl spent the better part of the last decade observing every athletic trainer and physical therapist he could find, all while consuming hundreds of books and research articles about sports medicine.

“I’m not a clinician, I’m a reporter,” Reinl said. “I simply started to look at what everyone did, and everyone iced, so I spent about seven or eight years interviewing head trainers and rehab directors of virtually every major sport in this country. But there was no evidence that icing worked. That became a problem.”

Now, high profile figures in sports and medicine are echoing Reinl’s words. In 2008, Tim Lincecum, two-time Cy Young award-winning pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, told Sports Illustrated that he “never” ices his arm after pitching. John Schaeffer, trainer to Olympic gold medalist speed skater Apolo Ohno, wrote on his website that he “stopped icing damaged tissue long ago” because it “indisputably delays healing, increases swelling and causes damage.”

But if ice is so widely used to treat injuries, from black eyes to bee stings, why isn’t there research to back it up?

“People once thought the Earth was the center of the universe too, even the educated people at the time, people who could read and write,” Reinl said. “And the people who believe that ice somehow aids the recovery process simply believe a myth. It’s not true and it never was true.”

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