So you have just torn your hamstring, you’re in pain, the area around the hamstring hurts and is starting to swell. There is probably no secret that you need to apply ice to the area straight away, but why do we apply ice and for how long should we continue to ice?
When you pull or damage a muscle, the body will trigger an inflammatory or swelling response. This initial stage of muscle repair is called the acute stage.
But is inflammation a friend or foe? In reality the answer is both.
Inflammation around an injured site is used to tell the mind that the body has been damaged and to limit movement to reduce of risk of further damage. It also increases blood flow to the area which is used to start healing the damaged tissue. Unfortunately the body isn’t that smart and tends to send more blood to the area than we need.
Inflammation also produces scar tissue that acts like a scab to the muscle fibres around the torn section of muscle. Again, scar tissue is necessary to heal the damaged muscle but excessive scar tissue will reduce range of movement and increase the chances of reinjuring the muscle in the future.
Icing the injured site will help reduce inflammation and build up of scar tissue and is thus why icing or ice treatment is so important.
But how long should you ice for?
If you ice for too little time the area will not be sufficiently cooled down and hence the effect of reducing swelling and inflammation is minimal. If you ice for too long you risk damage to nearby tissue from potential ice burning or even frost bite.
It is normally recommended time that the minimum and a maximum time to apply ice to the torn hamstring is between 10 and 20 minutes.
It is also important to reapply ice for the remainder of the acute phase of healing. Typically this lasts between 24 and 72 hours depending on the individual and the severity of the injury. During this time the ratio of ice on to ice off is often debated in medical world but the ratio that I am most comfortable with is 1:2 (eg. 10 minutes on, 20 minutes off or 15 minutes on, 30 minutes off etc)
After the acute phase of injury has ended then further icing is unlikely to continue to accelerate the rate of repair. It is important, however, to consider icing if you have reached the point in your rehab where you are starting to run again and there is local swelling or discomfort present after exercise.
It is also important to continue to ice the injury if the injury becomes chronic with further inflammation being an ongoing problem. It is recommended that if this is the case to seek advice from medical professional. In the instance of ongoing inflammation it may be necessary to continue to ice for an extended period of time.