Cold (cryo) therapy is widely used after a musculoskeletal injury or post-surgery to decrease pain, muscle spasms, edema and swelling. Let’s say you’ve had an ankle or knee injury. You know the drill – get in bed or on the couch, elevate the leg and apply ice to the injured area. You also remember the mess and inconvenience this kind of ice water therapy causes – wet pillows, bedclothes, blankets, etc. Staying compliant with that type of cold therapy is really difficult and that’s just one reason why ice water therapy alone isn’t ideal for recovering from a sports injury.
What’s even more important to know is that using ice water therapy by itself versus combining it with compression is an area that’s been studied by researchers in the field of orthopedics, sports medicine and physical therapy. These studies consistently find that when a patient combines active cold therapy with active (sometimes known as intermittent) compression of the affected area, muscle recovery is accelerated. Why is this true? What clinical benefits does active compression offer to someone suffering from a sports injury?
Mimics natural muscle contractions
The use of active compression helps to more rapidly get rid of the edema that surrounds injured soft tissue. Edema is caused by protein leakage from capillaries due to inflammatory affects on the endothelial cells. Edema reduces the availability of oxygen to the tissue, which decreases the energy needed to push the accumulated fluid out of the cell and restore normal flow. Numerous studies have concluded that normal lymphatic flow is critical for faster healing.
Reduced scar tissue formation
When edema builds up and is not rapidly removed, it can cause scar tissue formation. Active compression helps with lymphatic drainage and restoration of normal functioning so long-term tissue damage is minimized.
Improved blood flow
Your soft tissues and muscles need blood, which carries critical nutrients as well as oxygen, to function properly and to heal. Active compression helps blood flow through the injured area more effectively by stimulating endothelial cell production of nitric oxide, a neurotransmitter that enhances the vascular tone of the affected injury site.
Enhanced tissue healing
Researchers have found that active compression seems to provide a therapeutic effect that speeds connective tissue healing. The external pressure that is cyclically applied causes increased arterial blood flow, decreases venous pressure and reduces the diminution of blood flow to the injured area. In plain English, this means that active compression appears to encourage the acceleration of the healing process.
The Best Approach: Active Cold Therapy with Active Compression
When active cold and compression therapy are put together in one synergistic, convenient system, the clinical benefits are amplified. The soft tissue-cold surface contact is enhanced because of the compressive action, which increases the degree of tissue cooling. This improves pain relief, speeds healing, and minimizes long-term tissue necrosis and scar formation.
Don’t rely on outdated and ineffective ice water therapy when you have a sports injury. Ask your doctor or physical therapist for the system that combines active cold and compression in one package, so you get your game back faster. What system would you rather use to recover faster?