Should Pitchers Ice After Throwing
When you throw, you damage the muscles involved, all the way from the forearm to the lower body. Muscle damage results in soreness, often brought on by chemical byproducts that build up during intense muscle contractions. Soreness is uncomfortable, and naturally, pitchers want to do something about it. So they ice.
It numbs the sore area, shutting off communication between the muscle and the nerves. This is great for temporarily reducing pain, but not so great for the healing process.
When you ice, blood quickly rushes to the cold area to raise the temperature on the surface of the skin. Blood is good—we want blood to go to the injured area because blood brings healing nutrients. But there's a problem. Leave the ice on the area and you close up the blood vessels, trapping blood and waste products at the injured site. You may numb the area and reduce pain, but that doesn't mean you're healing the injured tissue.
People use ice, hoping to reduce inflammation, but in reality, icing only delays the inflammatory response. As soon as you take the ice away, blood rushes back to the area and inflammation ramps up again.
The Truth About Inflammation
Isn't inflammation bad? Don't we want to get rid of it as fast as possible?
Hold on. Inflammation is part of the natural healing process and a normal function of our immune system. We can't repair our muscles and tissues without it. Open any biology textbook and you'll read that inflammation is actually good because it protects the injured area, bringing antibodies, white blood cells and other substances to the site to speed up healing and kill invading particles.
Swelling isn't the problem. The problem is lingering waste products as a result of injury. These waste products need to be washed away by driving fluid into the area and flushing waste away using the lymphatic system, a part of the circulatory system that sucks up waste and debris for removal. The lymphatic system carries lymph, a clear fluid derived from the plasma in the blood. Junk from the injured site gets sucked into the lymph and carried away for removal. The system works via the muscle pump mechanism, which literally means muscles squeeze the lymphatic vessels to move the fluid inside them, much like squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Icing literally freezes the lymphatic system in its tracks, preventing it from kick-starting the healing process.
Icing, Recovery and Performance
Many studies have tried to determine whether and how icing impacts performance and recovery. Bad news for ice—the results don't look good.
A 2013 study found 15 minutes of icing immediately after intense exercise and three, 24, 48 and 72 hours after exercise not only didn't speed recovery–it made it worse. This study looked at eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage, the same kind of damage that occurs to the muscles while pitching.
What to Do Instead?
The point isn't that ice is totally bad or that you should never ice after throwing. But icing may not be the miracle cure it was once thought to be. There are other ways to speed up recovery without disrupting the natural healing process.