For decades, the standard and recommended response to an injured muscle, tendon or ligament was to “apply RICE,” an acronym that stands for a protocol of rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
Yet these days, the application of RICE as a treatment for these sports-type soft-tissue injuries isn’t 100 percent supported by science.
Multiple studies have come out over the years which question the wisdom behind our reliance on RICE as a treatment for injuries, specifically as it relates to rest and the application of ice to the injured area. Because of this, the role of RICE has changed in recent years.
RICE was coined in 1978 by Gabe Mirkin M.D., a legendary sports physician who introduced the procedure as the author of “The Sports Medicine Book.” Four decades later, RICE continues to be a go-to treatment for sprains, strains, and bruises. The protocol includes:
Avoiding the use of the injured area.
The application of ice or a cold pack to the sore or injured area, though not directly to the skin.
Wrapping the injured area to provide support, reduce blood flow and reduce swelling.
Raising the injured area or limb above the level of the heart to reduce swelling.
Most recently, however – and based on newer research and evidence – Mirkin has stepped back from the suggestion that rest and ice stimulate healing.
In doing so, he pointed to multiple studies, including one published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine which found no evidence that ice sped up healing and recovery. Additional research has found that icing an injured area can actually delay the healing process.
Rehabilitation & Active Recovery
This, along with additional evidence suggesting the active recovery is better than rest for healing and recovery, has many in the Rehabilitation community reevaluating the wisdom behind the RICE protocol.
Despite being so engrained in the way we think about treating injuries these days, it may be surprising to hear that rest and ice can actually delay healing. Over the years, research has supported mindful, active recovery as a better way to treat soft-tissue and sports injuries.
In other words, soft-tissue injuries benefit from the use of low-intensity movements and exercises that stimulate recovery and repair – exercise guided by pain and movement limitations. Such recovery processes work best when led by a medical professional, such as a certified athletic trainer.
Does this mean RICE no longer has a role in treating soft-tissue and sports injuries? Not necessarily. While RICE isn’t the optimal way to treat and cure many soft-tissue injuries, it can still be used effectively as a first-aid treatment.
RICE can help an injured person bear the brunt of the initial wave a pain until the severity of the injury is determined. At that point, if the movement is difficult or he or he can’t put weight on the injury, visiting a certified athletic trainer for evaluation and treatment may be necessary.