By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
The acronym RICE- which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation- has been around since Dr. Gabe Mirkin introduced it in 1978. Since then, healthcare professionals have viewed it almost as religious gospel that immediately after an acute sports injury you apply ice and light compression. I’ve never encountered a single athletic trainer or team doctor that wouldn’t recommend this, and at Sideline Sports Doc we also recommend it for young athletes in the first few days after a joint injury.
Interestingly though, Dr. Mirkin and others have recently raised questions about whether we should actually be applying RICE after injury. Dr. Mirkin states that inflammation after injury is a necessary part of the body’s healing response after injury, and that by reducing inflammation you are actually slowing down the healing process. He has changed his stance and no longer recommends RICE.
Let’s briefly have a look at a few sides of this problem
Authors from the National Athletic Trainers Association wrote a very nice review article about management of sports related ankle sprains, in which they devote several paragraphs to the use of RICE.
They note importantly that injury recovery can be divided into several phases. Immediately after injury (the first hours to maybe 3 days) can be called the “acute phase” in which the goals are to reduce pain, reduce swelling, and protect the injured area from further injury. After this comes the “subacute phase” in which inflammation is less of a factor and the focus is more on tissue and joint recovery. Finally, athletes would go through training for return to play.
They write that in those first few minutes or hours after injury: “Sports health care professionals, athletic trainers in particular, advocate the application of RICE immediately after injury and are arguably the only health care professionals who can consistently apply these interventions within minutes because they are often on site at the time of injury.”
To be clear, we are talking about the very early phase after an injury and I think this should be emphasized.
Once an injured person gets in to the “subacute phase” after a few days, then the emphasis changes more towards mobilization and improved function. This will vary on the type of injury, whether surgery was needed, etc. but the point is that once you get in to this phase then ice is likely less useful.
Interestingly, there isn’t a lot of high quality scientific evidence to support either position- for or against use of ice in the immediate post injury phase. Much of what we advocate is based on decades of clinical experience with athletes and other injured individuals, but we should recognize that evidence might someday appear that challenges our current beliefs.
Until then, I’m still a believer that application of RICE for about 20 minutes out of every few hours in the first few days after a sports related injury to a joint or extremity is the correct thing to do; decades of experience has established this method as the standard of care.
Understand also that not all injuries can fit neatly into boxes and there will be a lot of individual variability. When in doubt, seek qualified evaluation from a healthcare practitioner and have them assist you with an individualized treatment plan.