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Thoughts on Effectively Using Cold Therapy & Cold Therapy Compression for Athletes

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Every serious athlete is familiar with the R.I.C.E. treatment methodology for helping muscles recover after an overuse injury and to reduce both swelling and pain. This acronym of course stands for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. In recent years, cold therapy compression has become a leading means of effectively realizing the benefits of this methodology. Since use of the therapy can vary from athlete to athlete, it is important to have a basic understanding of the ways in which cold therapy compression works.

Applying cold compression wraps to an injured area causes the blood vessels in the area to restrict, which slows the metabolism of the cells. This cold therapy helps stop internal bleeding in the tissue, relieves pain, reduces muscle spasms, and cools deep tissues as it reduces swelling and inflammation.

The use of cold therapy compression which combines cold compression wraps with pneumatic compression therapy systems enable a much deeper penetration into the tissue of the cold therapy compression than other methods. As the cold from the wraps relieves the pain, the pumping action of the intermittent compression works to maximize the return of blood flow to the heart in order to oxygenate the blood and return it to the area of injury or fatigue for a faster healing process. Together, the two forms of therapy maximize the reduction of pain and swelling as well as blood oxygenation and removal of lactic acid.

The method by which the cold therapy compression treatment is administered makes a great deal of difference in its effectiveness. The ability of the cold compression wraps to maintain their low temperature is crucial as is the flexibility of the wrap so as to more easily conform to the injured body part or fatigued musculature. It is also important that the wraps be designed to easily integrate with the compression garment for the same reason.

While some methods require actually pumping cold water to the wraps or through the garment, this can be inefficient in several ways: first in terms of ease of use and relative portability for the user; secondly in terms of the garment’s ability to apply consistent pressure levels in a cyclical fashion for the efficient removal of lactic acid.

Collectively, these benefits lead to a faster, more efficient recovery time as well as optimizing preparation of the athlete’s fatigued extremities for the exertion of a workout or athletic event. In the case of the need for muscle recovery or in the more extreme case of true injury (as part of a non-surgical rehabilitation/physiotherapy treatment protocol), athletes can be ready for resumption of training in a much shorter period of time.

This therapy protocol can be effective in all types of common injuries ranging from muscle contusions and strains to sprains and fractures. Experienced trainers and sports therapy professional modify the R.I.C.E acronym to P.R.I.C.E, in order to acknowledge the ever-present need to “Protect” the injured body part or muscle from further injury. That is why it is important for athletes to have some professional advisement so as not to utilize cold compression wraps to the point where it masks the pain of injury to such a degree that they return to full exertion too soon.

The key to maximizing the effectiveness of cold compression wraps and cold therapy compression is utilizing it at the right time in the development of the injury or fatigued muscle. This includes the aforementioned need to regulate the proper amount of moderated use based on advisement of a skilled sports therapist and/or coach.

The general rule of thumb is to engage the cold compression wraps in the early stages of the inflammatory process when pain and swelling are at their greatest. The ability to adjust the cyclical pressure range is critical in order to balance the athlete’s comfort (which is heightened by the cold compression wraps) while effectively combatting the secondary hypoxic or ischemic response to injury.

The bottom line is that every athlete and their muscle recovery needs are different, so cold therapy compression must be tailored to the needs of each athlete and the injury. Consequently, the greater the flexibility of the system in terms of pressure, portability, and consistent cold of the compression wrap (along with its physical flexibility), the greater the chance of identifying a methodology of therapy delivery that works best for the individual athlete.

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